LOS ANGELES – In an intriguing cinematic twist, Keanu Reeves’ “Matrix” stunt double Chad Stahelski becomes his co-director with David Leitch on “John Wick,” a visceral revenge thriller that marks a confident, muscular action debut. After a marked absence from the genre, Reeves resoundingly returns with an effortless, kinetic style that positions the film extremely well for any potential follow-ups.
With much of the marketplace distracted by awards contenders and the seasonal onslaught of horror offerings, “John Wick” may find an opening to start building some seriously sustained momentum with both male and female Reeves fans during its initial rollout.
Economically recapping the recent personal loss of retired Russian mob assassin John Wick (Reeves) in nested flashbacks following the untimely death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), the opening scenes find Wick shuffling around in a fog of grief before latching onto his only remaining connection to her, a beagle puppy named Daisy that Helen arranged as a gift before her passing.
As he struggles to regain any sense of normalcy, the dog and fond memories of his marriage give Wick some hope for the future, but it proves short-lived when he’s antagonized by petulant young gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen), who tries to intimidate Wick into selling his classic 1969 black Mustang. When that doesn’t work, Iosef and his crew break into Wick’s New Jersey home to steal the car, leaving him battered and bloodied before Iosef kills Daisy in a fit of pique.
Wick quickly snaps back into cold-blooded killer mode even after five years on the sidelines once he’s deprived of his only remaining solace, determined to hunt Iosef down in retribution. Unearthing his stash of weapons and cash, Wick discovers that his target is actually the son of his former gang boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Fully realizing who they’re up against, Viggo tells Iosef: “It’s not what you did that angers me so, it’s who you did it to,” even though he’s committed to protecting his son’s life by putting a $2 million price on Wick’s head. First to consider the opportunity is Wick’s former colleague Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a crack sniper, as well as Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), a female contract killer who’s as deadly as she is gorgeous.
Derek Kolstad’s admirably lean script propels the film’s galvanizing action with only the barest narrative essentials, quickly dispensing with the series of improbable coincidences necessitated by the initial setup. With rarely more than a quarter-hour between dynamically staged set pieces, there’s little time to wonder whether Wick has anything more on his mind than elemental revenge.
Whatever his inner motivations, Wick isn’t one to clearly articulate them, which makes the character a natural fit with Reeves’ typically taciturn demeanor. With his stringy dark hair, scraggly beard and lithe physique, he’s in excellent form throughout the film, whether battling his way through imaginatively staged fight sequences or handling an impressive array of firearms and lethal blades.
Distilling a couple of decades of stunt work and second-unit directing experience into 96 minutes of runtime, Stahelski and Leitch expertly deliver one action highlight after another in a near-nonstop thrill ride. With a tendency to favor skillfully framed master shots over quick cuts from multiple angles, he immerses viewers in dynamic onscreen clashes that recall John Woo’s classic bullet ballets with an overlay of emotional intensity.
“John Wick,” a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use.