John Wick review: Hitman Keanu has sights on revenge
The A-lister is lean, mean, and gunning for payback in his new film, but pet-lovers might want to look away, says Andrew Johnston
The first thing to get out of the way about Keanu Reeves's latest action flick is that yes, the dog dies. This isn't spoiling anything - it happens within the first 10 minutes, and Reeves himself gave the game away on The Jonathan Ross Show. But the fact that Chad Stahelski's debut feature has the nerve to introduce the cutest pooch since The Artist's Uggie and then dispense with it in a brutal home invasion sequence sums up a movie that takes absolutely no prisoners.
John Wick is a former hitman for Michael Nyqvist's Russian mobster, retired following the death of his wife, who has bequeathed him a puppy to give him something to live for. He spends his days pacing his OK magazine-friendly mansion and taking out his frustrations by racing his 1969 Mustang Mach 1 round the local airfield, like a good-looking Jeremy Clarkson on hearing he's been fired. His reclusive bliss is shattered when a trio of thugs - led by Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen - steal his car, kill his dog and leave him for dead. Cue 90 minutes of Wick kicking, punching, stabbing, shooting and throttling his way through various nightclubs, hotels and churches' worth of goons in order to get his own back.
Directed by erstwhile stunt performer and martial arts instructor Stahelski, John Wick couldn't be in better hands. It is light on its feet, thinks outside the box and isn't afraid to go for the jugular. In some quarters, the US box office hit has been lumped in with the "geriaction" efforts of Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington et al. But despite now being in his sixth decade, Reeves remains a trim, toned, boyish presence. And on this film's evidence, he won't be delegating the fight scenes to stuntmen for some time yet.
Taking its cues equally from spaghetti westerns and Asian epics such as John Woo's The Killer, John Wick is as moody as it is bursting with high-energy, dazzlingly choreographed scraps. There is a hint of The Terminator or Tom Cruise's character in the underrated Collateral. Reeves' Wick is a non-stop killing machine, or as Nyqvist's big bad puts it: "John wasn't exactly the boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the f*****g boogeyman."
The movie plays to Reeves' strengths. The Speed and The Matrix star's otherworldliness - or lack of acting ability, depending on where you stand on this - is perfect for the vengeance-obsessed Wick. He isn't given mouthfuls of dialogue to chew on, and his blank-faced assassin isn't required to emote very much. Reeves also has sterling support from heavyweights like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo.
Visually, the picture is neatly placed on the borderline between stylish and stylised, with a neon-tinged colour palette that brings to mind 2013's Only God Forgives or even Blade Runner. It has an almost supernatural feel, but never to the extent we stop believing in what's happening on screen.
Perhaps writer Derek Kolstad (whose only previous credits are a couple of obscure Dolph Lundgren vehicles) could have injected more humour into the script, but it seems to have been a conscious decision not to labour Wick with a catchphrase a la Neeson's ex-CIA bruiser with "a very particular set of skills" in Taken.