‘John Wick’ Gets You to Root for Keanu Reeves

John Wick offers you a chance to feel smart about the revenge thriller genre, and to feel okay when you want John (Keanu Reeves) to survive.

Here’s something you don’t see very often: a movie that knows exactly what it is, and knows you know it too. From its very first moments, when an SUV rolls roughly into a loading dock, its door opening to allow Keanu Reeves to spill out, bloody and ravaged, John Wick is all about you. It’s about what you expect, what you’ve seen before, what you believe to be true and what you know is not.

One thing you might know is that Keanu Reeves was once The One. John Wick doesn’t reference The Matrix in any overt way, but Neo still looms, a specter of youth in a perfect black trench coat, lovely and naïve, low-voiced and ever splendid. John Wick isn’t any of that: he’s a veteran, a retired super-assassin of such renown that only his name need be mentioned for hard-faced killers and kingpins to reveal just the slightest quiver of concern. He’s sad, grieving the loss of his wife (Bridget Moynahan) in flashbacks aided by the cellphone video he carries with him always: the wife on the beach, the wife calling him to come home, the wife beautiful and alluring and dead. And he’s good. He keeps an astounding fortress of a home, all spare architecture and hidden caches of artillery, and once he’s armed — a process rendered here as the determined ritual you expect, strapping on the vest, the extra cartridges, guns, and knives — he’s unstoppable.

All this background is familiar, of course. Any counter-heroic super-killer worth his salt has weapons and technology, a spectacular vehicle, and a reason to mourn (framed, of course, by the requisite rainy funeral and flotilla of black umbrellas, as well as a view of melancholy John from inside the grave). He also has a punk on whom to wreak his dark, sensationally choreographed havoc. This element arrives on John’s doorstep in the form of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), a cocky Russian criminal scion who decides he wants John’s spectacular vehicle, a 1969 black Mustang, good for screeching around corners and roaring down long stretches of grim grey airport tarmac.

The car catches Iosef’s eye at a gas station — that most mundane of meet-cute spots — and John brushes off the kid’s off to buy it (“She’s not for sale”). Iosef proceeds to act out, arriving at John’s home and attended by two thug-protectors assigned by his father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). This second encounter turns dire, not when the brute beat John with pipes, underlined by thunking sounds and vivid close-ups of John’s accumulating injuries, but by Iosef’s decision to kill John’s agonizingly adorable beagle, a gift from the long-ailing wife from beyond her grave. John spends long seconds in long shots mourning the dog; that is to say, re-mourning the wife.

That Iosef not only steals the car but also kills the dog double-and-triple marks him for doom. Whenever anyone hears that he’s done so, their faces betray that they know what you know: John wick is now wired for revenge and there is nothing anyone can do about it. It happens that John used to work for Viggo, so he’s well aware of the horrors about to be unleashed. Like most fathers of stupid sons in such movies, Viggo seems less surprised or even ready to act on his son’s behalf than he looks resigned. Still, he acts on his son’s behalf because that’s what Russian crime bosses do in such movies.

The fighting that ensues involves the usual sorts of combatants, from the rival hitperson (Adrianne Palicki) to the sow-witted guys with beards to the mentor-maybe-enemy (Willem Dafoe) to the guy who runs the hotel where all the elite killers for hire hang out and know the rules (Ian McShane). John interacts with each according to his myth and his current goal (vengeance), but he’s also interacting with them as a show for you. When he admits he might be “back,” you know it’s about him and also about Keanu Reeves and even a little bit about Neo.

For the kind of physical machinations John undertakes is not bullet time, but it is bullet time-ish. It’s is more physical, it is more material, but it is exquisitely choreographed. Cars flip and smash, bodies fly, necks break, and heads — again and again — dissolve into red smudges. It’s art and it’s repetition (which is to say formula) and it’s fun. It invites you to be aware of what you know and what you knew, when you understood the genre and when you came to appreciate it. It also offers you a chance to feel smart about the genre, and to feel okay when you want John to survive.

RATING 8 / 10