DIRECTED BY David Leitch & Chad Stahelski
STARS Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist
Pop quiz, hotshot. What’s the fastest, most efficient way to have an entire audience squarely line up behind a film protagonist? Have someone murder his wife? Cripple his kid? Put too much starch in his collar? No, nope and ix nay. Kill his sweet, defenseless dog? Now we’re talking.
That’s the jumping off point in John Wick, which casts Keanu Reeves as the title character. A former assassin, Wick quit the biz and found bliss with a lovely woman (Bridget Moynahan) who would become his wife for a short period until she tragically succumbed to cancer.
After her passing, Wick receives a posthumous present from her: an adorable beagle puppy to remind him that he needs to move ahead and learn to love again. Yet he only has the pup a few days before some Russian mobsters improbably hanging out at a Jersey gas station spot his ’69 Mustang and decide they must steal it.
Later that night, they easily break into his house (which, despite being a million-dollar home, apparently has no alarm system of which to speak), beat him up, bludgeon his puppy, and swipe the vehicle. With the animal – the last connection to his late, lamented wife – now dead, Wick sets out on a path of righteous vengeance, eventually learning that one of the Russian hoodlums (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) is – Holy Coincidence, Batman! – the son of the mob kingpin (Michael Nyqvist) who owes his empire to Wick’s annihilation of the competition years earlier.
Slaughtering scores of bad guys in exchange for the murder of one puppy? Hey, totally works for me, but the cathartic vibes eventually dissipate in the wake of such a flagrantly formulaic picture, one which feels as if it should have starred Chuck Norris back in 1986.
The picture is so simplistic that not only does it pale next to the recent hit The Equalizer – another movie about a former killer forced to once again tangle with Russian thugs – it makes that Denzel Washington starrer seem as elaborately plotted as Chinatown by comparison.
The look of the stylized violence is effective, but the mechanics behind the choreography are not – this is the sort of film where you can practically see the assistant director on the side telling each extra cast as a killer when to join the scene, since there’s no logical reason why their characters wouldn’t gang-rush Wick at once rather than stagger-step their entrances (particularly during a lengthy home-invasion sequence).
Fine actors like Willem Dafoe and John Leguizamo are wasted in crepe-thin roles, while Nyqvist, best known for portraying Mikael Blomkvist in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, becomes progressively more hammy as the film continues, ultimately reaching “Gary Oldman in The Professional” levels.
But it’s nice to see David Patrick Kelly again. Once carving out a niche as a venal villain in such efforts as The Warriors, Dreamscape and Commando, he pops up here as Charlie, the man who’s always called in to mop up the blood and dispose of all those corpses. Hey, it’s a living.