Keanu Reeves Reloads With Silly "John Wick"

“John Wick” is as foolish an undertaking as any in recent memory, attempting to both reestablish a 50 year-old Keanu Reeves (“Speed,” “The Matrix”) as a viable action star and hawk stupidity in nuclear bomb sized portions. Improbably, it sort of works. The film never fully embraces its own doltishness, but winks twitchily at us all the same – a trait as clumsy as it is endearing. With a body count higher than its IQ, “John Wick” lands enough punches and stirs up enough knowing laughs to justify its own existence – all any boilerplate revenge-actioner can do.

Retired assassin and grieving widower John Wick (Reeves) cares about two things – his car, a 1969 Ford Mustang, and his new Beagle puppy, a posthumous gift from his late wife. When a group of gangsters arbitrarily ransacks his estate – killing his dog and stealing his car for kicks – John Wick gets angry. Very, very angry. In response, the screenplay sees its title character literally take a sledgehammer to his past, tearing into a concrete floor to reveal a cache of weapons and gold coins. Wick is quickly on the prowl, soon to learn that he’s hunting the bratty, ignorant son of a powerful former associate, Viggo Tarasev (Michael Nyqvist, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”).

Longtime stunt coordinators and first-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch know precisely what they have in their star and Derek Kolstad’s screenplay and it proves essential. After a slow but rarely languid first act, Reeves disembarks a city bus to begin his killing spree, a shot that craftily calls on the star’s past to suggest a near future that promises to be a shrewd mix of new and old. Unlike the jokey callbacks of the “Expendable” films, the moment doesn’t call attention to itself, merely suggesting that we’re about to have some retrograde shoot-em-up fun instead of shouting “Aren’t we having fun?!”

The chaos that follows features name actors aplenty, from Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man”) as one of Wick’s many industry frenemies to Ian McShane (“Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) as the owner of a hotel that moonlights as a safe haven for contract killers. Lance Reddick and John Leguizamo (“Moulin Rouge!”) appear in extended cameos, while Dean Winters (NBC’s “30 Rock” and Allstate’s ubiquitous series of “Mayhem” TV spots) turns in the film’s funniest performance. But it’s Reeves’ film to carry and carry it he does. He imbues his character with a seething, weathered intensity, giving us something we haven’t seen in decades, if ever – a legitimately charismatic Keanu Reeves performance.

Known more for his (or his agent’s) knack for commerce than acting ability – he took home a percentage on the “Matrix” sequels that resulted in an unheard of nine-figure paycheck – Reeves has found a return to form that isn’t really a return to form. Between the pic’s day-glo subtitles and absurd death toll and refreshingly bizarre one-liners, this “Grand Theft Auto”-esque romper is fiery in ways its star never has been, making for an action flick that’s a fit for old-timers and newbies alike. It nods to the past without getting lost in it, keeping its gaze straight ahead, coming dangerously close to being the throwback actioner that genre fans keep waiting for.

Except, it’s dumb. Really, really dumb. When it meanders, it meanders hard, devolving into a revenge-fantasy void that does little with its colorful cast of characters. Worse yet, its flashy, CGI gunplay-riddled setpieces ultimately begin to feel routine. These are sturdy bones with virtually no meat on them, destined to fade with repeat viewings and the passage of time. Eventually no one will be able to identify what there was to like about “John Wick” in the first place, a modern instrument of brute force marked for obsolescence.

But for right now, in 2014? It’s mindless fun on top of mindless fun, a one-note work with nothing at all to say, content to hit the same note for 90 minutes straight. Reeves is good, the action is sleek and well-staged, and there are tasty bites of clever dialogue scattered throughout the screenplay. As such, “John Wick” isn’t so much the career defibrillator it appears to be at first glance, but a boot to the face – worth the spike in adrenaline and the fleeting impression it’s certain to leave. Nothing more, nothing less.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: October 24, 2014
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe
MPAA Rating: R (for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use)