Haters who rip Keanu Reeves for his wooden acting overlook the concomitant brilliance when he is cast as a tree. The title role in “John Wick” is uncommonly suited to his Botoxian stoicism. Wick, a retired gangland assassin, was so skilled at his job that when he told his then-boss, a powerful mobster name of Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), that he was leaving the life, bossman actually let him do so, pending Wick’s completing something so stupendously impossible that he should’ve died. He didn’t, and Viggo let him go out to pasture, to get married and lie low in Jersey.
Instead, and there had to be an instead, life intervened. The wife, she died. As Wick grapples with his grief, a couple of lowlifes steal his car and kill his dog. You can fairly presume these lowlifes won’t have long lives. Except, oops, one of them (Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy of “Game of Thrones”) happens to be Viggo’s kid. Viggo knows enough about Wick, upon learning what happened, to essentially launch a preemptive gang war against his former employee. The results are what you might call mixed, at best.
These are the flour, eggs and milk of your run-of-the-mill noir revenge flick. Going beyond the basics, first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both stuntmen with resumes as long as an IV drip line, swirl in heaping doses of slick weirdness without letting flash overwhelm substance.
For instance: The fact that Wick’s reputation precedes him so, and that no one with any sense wants any part of him whatsoever, adds a glint of realism to what could otherwise become a cartoon. The fight sequences are heavy on the gunplay but move at a pace and rhythm befitting a Jackie Chan movie, or perhaps a round of “Splinter Cell” on Xbox. The violence is brutal, unyielding and yet stops just shy of hyperbolic. Small touches in Wick’s style (finishing his adversaries with two shots to the head — the double-tap — stands out) make this guy feel different from the homicidal dervishes we’ve cheered in movies past.
Deeper into world, too, we find deadpan, surrealistic flourishes that bring buoyancy to the grimness. Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe and Lance Reddick appear as players in a sort of hitman subculture with its own rules and norms. The humor here is arch but subtle, with a touch of a modern sci-fi cool to the lingo and the currency (a single gold coin for seemingly every transaction). The hotel where Wick holes up for a while, the Continental, could earn its own network spin-off series as a hive of assassins where business cannot be conducted on the premises (i.e., no murdering allowed) but where its house doctor will come stitch up your knife wounds and advise you on how to keep fighting when they inevitably rip. Because work calls.
It all amounts to dark fun served cold. The secret weapon here is Nyqvist, the crime boss who is thoroughly unsurprised, to the point of casual resignation, that Wick is picking apart his empire, man by man, corpse by corpse. Meanwhile, for his part, Reeves doesn’t have to strike too many notes. He is no viola. At best, he is a timpani, in command of a truncated scale. Anger, he has down pat. Homicidal rage, that’s also pretty convincing. The smiling, he leaves for other people.