See Keanu Reeves. His wife died. He is sad.
Sad, sad Keanu.
See the puppy. The puppy is cute. See puppy eat. See puppy lick Keanu’s ear. See puppy shit on the lawn.
See puppy GET BEATEN THE FUCK TO DEATH BY RUSSIAN MOBSTERS.
That’s the set-up for John Wick.
Elmore Leonard has always had one good bit of advice for writers – leave out the parts that people skip over anyway. If you’re into the macho, people-hitting-each-other-till-their-faces-break kind of genre film that follows Leonard’s rule, this is it. The character of John Wick is presented to us as if he’s a pre-existing franchise character, with no backstory beyond “sick wife who died” and whatever is implied by the way people react when they hear someone pissed him off: a very understated “Oh” that says it all.
The reason the movie is getting so much love is that it’s a total throwback, like the kind of movie the various cast members of The Expendables used to make when we still weren’t tired of them. You don’t go to John Wick for plot any more than you’d go to Raw Deal or Out for Justice for the same back in the day. You go because you know the star, and you want to see him give a beatdown.
And I must say, public opinion among my generation has done a total 180 on Keanu Reeves. I remember when he was the guy we didn’t want to see in anything other than Bill and Ted. We mocked him in Point Break until we decided that was actually awesome. We snickered as he tried to get Shakespearean, or affect an English accent in Dracula. We swore we’d rather gouge our eyes out than see him as John Constantine. His “redneck” in The Gift was a disaster, and Johnny Mnemonic made me a huge Matrix skeptic until I finally saw the latter. And yet nowadays – in an informal survey of my Facebook friends – I have learned that the consensus is “Those weren’t his fault.”
My position on Reeves remains what it has been for a while – he can be very good at very specific roles within a limited range. Any role that calls for somebody who can be unnaturally calm in the face of chaos – and little else – is one he can nail. The funny thing is I’ve met Reeves, and in person he has a dynamic, warm personality that I’ve never seen him truly put across onscreen except in the documentary Side by Side.
John Wick doesn’t require warmth, in case you couldn’t tell by now. John Wick is a movie about badasses, by badasses – director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch are a stunt team – for people who wish they were badasses. It’s set in a sort of parallel, underworld society in which everyone is a hitman playing by unwritten rules, and I’m not sure we ever even see a civilian other than Wick’s late wife.
When the unwritten rules are broken, as they inevitably must be in a world where not everybody with a gun is the epitome of composure, shit starts to fly. The movie’s archvillain Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) doesn’t actually want to fight with John at all, but when his son stupidly does that thing to the puppy, he knows he’s going to be drawn in anyway, and tries to be preemptive.
Reeves doesn’t use the tai chi or kung fu you might expect here. As a model of ruthless efficiency, he tends to use MMA-style takedowns followed by a gunshot to the head, which is a combination I’m not sure I’ve seen done quite like this onscreen. His opponents use a variety of tactics, with Adrianne Palicki cranking up the wrestling moves while most others rely on guns; refreshingly, the grand finale is not some massive CGI setpiece, but rather a one-on-one battle. The film may be slickly shot through all kinds of filters, but it mostly relies on the basics – guys who want to hurt each other, and do, without fussing too much about how they’ll get it done. The hotel for hitmen that’s officially neutral ground and run by a concierge who speaks in amusing code is the story’s best conceit, and the source of much deadpan humor, which is the only kind the filmmakers want.
It’s nice to see an old-school action star rise again. It blows my mind that it’s Keanu Reeves. But damned if I’m not happy to see him again.