Keanu Reeves is one of those guys you root for. The man may not be a renowned thesp with a glittering Brando-esque filmography behind him, but he has the unique honour of being genuinely superb in at least two of my most-loved films (Parenthood and Point Break), while at the same time anchoring the worst film I’ve ever paid to see (The Matrix Revolutions). The degree to which he’s been beset by personal tragedy is well known: to summarise, his father walked out on his family, then his best friend (River Phoenix) died of an overdose, his daughter was stillborn, her mother died in a car crash, and his sister contracted leukemia. And while the physical ravages of time have been kind to arguably the youngest-looking 50-year-old in the world, recent years have not been kind at the box office.
There’ve been huge turkeys like the aforementioned Matrix debacle, the inert remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2013’s nothing-y 47 Ronin, and then there’s his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, which inexplicably featured The Raid’s Iko Uwais in a non-fighting role. Now there’s John Wick. Or rather, six months ago there was John Wick: recent form hasn’t allowed Keanu films to guarantee international distribution in advance. But ‘instant cult classic’ buzz was so strong that Warner Bros eventually made it happen in the UK, and finally, in April, here we are.
So the film? Pure, dumb, gleeful, unadulterated B-movie fun with a generous dollop of style. The titular John is a hitman who got out of the game when he found love. Illness suddenly claims his wife and at the film’s outset we find him grieving, but his wife sends him a gift from beyond the grave – and it’s only an adorable puppy! Those of you who saw Tom Hardy in The Drop know that a lovely vulnerable puppy is cinematic shorthand for a badass about to break cover, and so it goes with John Wick – Russian mobsters with a reckless disregard for canine wellbeing invade his home to steal his car. John, understandably, goes totally ape-shit, and wages a one-man war against the entire Russian mob. They are hopelessly outmatched.
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch set their flick in a stylised version of New York in which hitmen have their own hotel and currency, and the police never come to any crime scene. Leitch is best-known for his stunt work, which reads like a highlights reel of the last 20 years of action cinema: Blade, the Matrix films, 300, The Bourne Ultimatum, and many more. Stahelski doubled for Reeves in the Matrix films, as well as Brandon Lee in The Crow. It is therefore no surprise that the film’s key selling point it its kinetic, elegant, sumptuous action; Wick is a double-tap-to-the-head kind of guy, and is fastidious in his commitment to making sure offed henchman don’t get back up. The film thus has the snappy gun-fu of John Woo’s Hong Kong work and action fave Equilibrium, along with the hand-to-hand brio of the oeuvre of the genre’s current patron saint, Sir Jason von Stathamshire. Keanu is equal to it all, and while there’s more than a hint that the tongue is in the cheek, it’s all delivered with a slick, visceral pleasure.
Supporting cast? Strong – Alfie Allen, cockless victim of Game of Thrones, is the poor fool who quite simply picked on the wrong puppy. Michael Nyqist (last seen as the villain in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) is his father, leading the mob. Then there’s the likes of Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters, all great, but all background furnishing to the main event, which is a souped up Keanu dancing his way through legions of Russians with style and panache.
Maybe Warner Bros knew what they were doing after all, holding the film back until all the deathly-serious awards films (Birdman notwithstanding) had retired to DVD, and cinema-goers were ready for a shot of adrenaline before next month heralds the arrival Avengers: Age of Ultron and another summer of superheroes. Who knows – who cares? Just celebrate a fine, uncomplicated, stylish action romp, and a great day for Johnny Utah, Johnny Mnemonic, and now John Wick. Fans are clamouring for a sequel already – it’s a happy start to Keanu’s fifties.
John Wick opens in the UK on Friday 10th April 2015 at cinemas across the country. For Odeon screens and showtimes, visit www.odeon.co.uk.