Reeves returns in wicked action flick
JOHN WICK (TBA)
Action/101 minutes/Opens Thursday
Meet John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recent widower. He lives with his beagle puppy, Daisy, a posthumous gift from his wife, and spends his days pottering around abandoned airfields in his 1969 Boss Mustang.
Living's not easy for Wick and it's about to get a lot harder when Russian gangster Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of crime lord Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), breaks into his house, steals his car and kills his dog.
You see, Wick is also a retired hitman. Once an employee of Viggo, his nickname - Baba Yaga, or the Boogeyman - strikes fear into the hearts of hoodlums everywhere.
And once you tick off Wick, you can be sure your death will come quick.
REEVES has starred in some of my favourite action movies of all time, like Speed and The Matrix trilogy. But it's been a while since he's appeared in any good ones.
He had only one fight scene in last year's average Man Of Tai Chi and plenty in last year's dull 47 Ronin.
So I am pleased to say that Reeves has finally regained his action mojo. In some ways, the 50-year-old Canadian's return to the genre that made him a star parallels his character's coming out of retirement.
Wick is a fabled contract killer whose reputation precedes him, and the film takes pains to establish that in the first act through exposition by Viggo and a chop-shop owner played by John Leguizamo. Even Wick is scared of himself, so much so that he buries his gun stash under a foot of concrete.
All that reverence wouldn't fly, though, if Wick or the actor playing him didn't live up to it. Thankfully, the first action setpiece knocks it out of the park by having him single-handedly wasting an entire hit squad, using a hybrid fighting style that the film-makers call "gun fu". It looks as cool as it sounds.
Things gets crazier from there, and the ensuing chaos is captured in glorious, blood-splattering detail by directors Chad Stahelski - who was Reeves' stunt double on The Matrix - and David Leitch.
The duo are veteran stuntmen and founders of stunt group 87Eleven. Their experience in front of the camera shows when they get behind it, through well-choreographed action - with Reeves clearly performing some of the stunts - and clean, long takes.
The film has an 80s action-flick feel to it, complete with a gunfight in a neon-soaked nightclub, muscle-car chases and a showdown in pouring rain.
Screenwriter Derek Kolstad says his favourite films always had a revenge motif and that he loves antiheroes. Other than the fact that the inciting action is the killing of a pet instead of the usual human friend or family member, Wick's quest for retribution stands in a long line of wronged-vigilante flicks from Death Wish (1974) to the two-part Kill Bill (2003 and 2004).
What makes this tale of vengeance different, though, is the amount of world-building that goes into it. Wick is a member of a secret society of assassins with their own uniform - mostly suits - code of conduct, currency, a safe house which doubles as a neutral zone, and even a post-killing clean-up crew. Learning about this hidden world and seeing how it affects Wick and vice-versa was an unexpected delight.
Reeves' acting is often dismissed as being wooden, but here he proves he is capable of emotional range, whether it be mourning the loss of a loved one or erupting with righteous anger.
The supporting cast pull their weight: Nyqvist's aged kingpin has a great monologue on how he and Wick are destined to do penance for their sins, Willem Dafoe lends gravitas as Wick's former colleague whose allegiance is unclear and Ian McShane exudes menace as the regal owner of the safe house.
Adrianne Palicki, who plays one of the goons out for the bounty on Wick's head, gets a fun fight scene, but she has little else to do.
While John Wick has a familiar plot, it does what it says on its tin with aplomb and within a richly developed mythology. It's exciting to see Reeves back at doing what he does best - kicking ass and looking good - and I hope we get to see more of Wick and his dark and stylish universe.
It is fitting that, at one point, Wick growls: "People keep asking if I'm back. Yeah, I'm thinking I'm back!"
For fans of Reeves, you'd better believe it.