By Bruce Ingram/For Sun-Times Media
You can break into his house, you can steal his car, but never, never, mess with a retired hit man’s dog.
That’s the takeaway life lesson in the unexpectedly terrific “John Wick,” a lean, spare, stylish and grimly, methodically ultra-violent extravaganza that provides star Keanu Reeves with a much-needed infusion of cool. And hard-core action fans with combat-centric cinematic expertise on a par with 20ll’s “The Raid.”
The directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a veteran stunt coordinator and Reeves’ “Matrix” stunt double, “John Wick” doesn’t offer much in the way of a plot. It’s a standard-issue revenge thriller, basically, about a reformed assassin who breaks out his old hit-man kit for personal reasons. But that just means there’s not much story to get in the way when Mr. Wick decides to uncork some retribution.
Much of it is dispensed with early, during a montage in which we witness Wick’s beloved wife dying after a long illness. He’s distraught but comforted by his wife’s final gift, a puppy named Daisy that arrives after her funeral. Unfortunately, Wick’s classic ’69 Boss Mustang (black, of course, like his hair, his suits and, very soon, his mood) has attracted the attention of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen of “Game of Thrones”), the punk son of a Russian crime lord, who breaks into his house to steal it — and does something very, very mean to Daisy before leaving. Oh, Iosef. Wow. Bad move, dude.
Making Iosef pay means dodging assassins and taking on the extensive criminal organization of his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), but that doesn’t worry Wick. In fact, “John Wick” shows the first sign of its surprising sense of humor by demonstrating that it worries Viggo very much indeed. “Oh,” is his only reaction when he gets a call informing him who his son has ticked off. Aside from the blood draining from his face. Wick has a legendary reputation, it seems. “He’s the guy you send to kill the boogey man,” says Viggo, who knows he’s doomed, but decides to fight anyway.
Stahelski has created an impressively distinctive, self-contained world for “John Wick” that emphasizes sophistication and stylishness, including a high-end hotel (with Ian McShane as proprietor) that caters exclusively to killers for hire. And he runs his characters through it without a single extraneous moment or unnecessary word of dialogue until the somewhat overlong finale. Those are value-added bonuses, though, compared to what he does best here: taking an old-school approach to the film’s half dozen or so major mayhem-athons. Instead of the fast-cutting, shaky-cam mash-ups common today, Stahelski employs long, elaborately choreographed takes in which every move is clearly delineated — and credible in the moment.
The shaky-cam approach may be necessary with actors who can’t stand up to close scrutiny as unstoppable killing machines, but 50-year-old Reeves (who performed his own martial arts stunts last year while directing “Man of Tai Chi”) is more than up to the challenge. He executes Wick’s murderous moves with lethal assurance, often taking out a dozen or more gangsters at a time with an exotic mix of aikido, judo and handgun-to-the-face, all delivered with flat-affect implacability that’s a perfect match for his persona.
There are lots of good reasons to see “John Wick” (and to see it on the biggest screen possible), but remember the moral: Don’t be cruel to animals. Or the ASPCA could be the least of your worries.
Lionsgate presents a film directed by Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.