Director: Chad Stahelski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist
4 (out of 5) Globes
We’re a culture that loves black and white, “moral clarity,” straight-shooting. There may be the temptation to pigeonhole “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves’ return to full-time gunplay: Is it an action film or send-up of same? But we should entertain complexity, even embracing apparent contradictions —including that “John Wick” is both action movie and action movie parody at the same time. It’s a ridiculous, cheerfully OTT revenge saga in which the onetime Neo once again guns down — and occasionally stabs or punches but, at an annoyingly youthful-looking 50-years-old, mostly guns down —score after score after score of baddies. It’s only slightly less unrealistic than “The Matrix,” but only slightly, and it knows it. And yet it knows that being too self-aware would ruin the fun. It’s tongue is in a very specific part of the cheek.
The setup sets us up for the anguish and silliness to come. Reeves’ titular badass isn’t a badass anymore; he retired to domestic bliss with pretty Bridget Moynahan. Alas, the actress is viewed entirely over videos on his smartphone. She has just died, and in the midst of his titanic grief he receives a package she arranged to be sent before her passing: arguably cinema history’s more adorable beagle. But the happiness doesn’t last long: some thugs break into Wick’s McMansion to steal his car, beat him senseless before turning their bats on his dog. Killing a beagle (it can’t be over-stressed: a super, really cute one) proves enough to tip him over: Sad Keanu becomes Angry, Howling Keanu, and he takes a sledgehammer to his basement floor, procuring his arsenal (plus reams of gold coins — why not?). After sussing out that the chief thug is the son of a feared Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist), informs said mobster that he’ll be taking them all out —just cuz.
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Nyqvist’s Viggo goes pale just at the mere mention of Wick’s name; turns out he’s the assassin to end all assassins. Much of “John Wick” has its antihero plowing through a seemingly endless army of minions, usually with guns fired at close range. Untold extras get shot right in the face, but all they suffer is a small spurt of blood then a head kickback. Any more realistic and this wouldn’t be fun. And it is fun — a live-action cartoon cranked up to 11, reveling in its ridiculousness and never spoiling the good times with anything approaching real world sense. (That is, of course, besides the opening death, which, as in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” is too heavy and borderline insensitive a tragedy for such a lark.)
But “John Wick” isn’t just goofy gunplay (unfortunately set to guitar lick-heavy, head-thrashing metal — the film’s one major miscalculation). There’s some real world-building here. There’s not simply an underworld of assassins; there’s an actual club, with a membership, a velvet rope bar and its own wry, martini-swilling president (Ian McShane). It’s knowingly ridiculous but also actually witty; when hearing that his son messed with The John Wick, Nyqvist stakes claim for uttering the greatest and most loaded exclamation of the word “Oh” in acting history. It has plenty of Keanu shooting faceless villains, but there’s enough here —including a grave Willem Dafoe as an old colleague, even a leftfield cameo from Clarke Peters —that it never becomes a monotonous full-on, above-it-all lampoon, like “Shoot ’Em Up.” It’s smart but not so smart that it doesn’t deliver good, dumb thrills.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge