John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former hit man who has fallen into despair after illness suddenly takes the life of his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). After a group of thugs rob Wick of the gift Helen left for him, he embarks upon an opera of slaughter and mayhem to get his revenge. He’ll face against other assassins (Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki) and the Russian mob, led by Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), whose repugnant son, Iosef (Game of Throne's Alfie Allen), started the trouble in the first place.
Reeves just turned fifty, which means he gets to join the steadily growing gentlemen’s club of veteran actors who spend their golden years murdering people, including Denzel Washington, Liam Neeson, and even Michael Caine (remember Harry Brown?). Although Reeves is as wooden as ever, here it feels appropriate, since he is playing a man who is numbed by violence and loss. He is also given little to say by the script, and does a serviceable job with the occasional line he has to deliver. Despite the rogue’s gallery of character actors around him, this is very much Reeves’ movie, and he gets the job done.
The real stars of the film are first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Despite this distinction, however, their IMDb listings are lousy with stunt work, which would explain why the action is so well-framed and easy to follow. These guys want you to really see what the actors are doing here, especially Reeves, who appears to have done his own stunts. Both the fights and the gunplay and are meticulously choreographed, and reminded me of a slightly less visceral version of The Raid: Redemption, one of the decade’s best action movies.
Leitch and Stahleski also work well with the rest of the crew. Derek Kolstad’s screenplay is mercifully light on chitchat, which makes sense considering the hard-boiled, taciturn men it focuses on. Kolstad does include bizarre, funny touches like a hotel that is seemingly made for assassins, a gold-coin based economy, and Turkish baths beneath a New York nightclub. All of this is filmed dynamically by Jonathan Sela, whose gorgeous grays and blacks of Wick’s depressive days transition into stylized lighting and splashes of crimson color once the killing starts.
The movie is heavy on style, but light on originality. We’ve seen this character before, and his story goes in a direction you will see coming. In its broad strokes, John Wick is utterly conventional. But despite being part of a crowded sub-genre, the film sets itself apart with its furious style and breathless action. The quirky details that the filmmakers layer around its familiar core make the movie worth checking out all on their own.