John Wick

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Directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane
In UK Cinemas April 10th, 2015

by Richard Hamer

John Wick: strong, silent, stoic former hitman, feels like the role Keanu Reeves was born to play. This isn’t entirely a compliment.

Recently widowed, and posthumously gifted an adorable puppy, the film opens with Wick wandering blankly around his house, looking unhappy. A borderline parody of Reeves’ sad, serious persona, here we are treated to protracted scenes of John Wick staring sadly at his puppy. Then John Wick staring sadly at a looping video of his dead wife giggling like a teenager on a cold beach. Then John Wick staring sadly at a bowl of cereal. And so on.

Reeves has a (not entirely deserved) reputation as being quite a poor actor, and this movie does him no favours: The dialogue is functional to the point of being stage directions, delivered with all the genuine emotion of a man reading out a stranger’s eulogy from a newspaper.  Thankfully, these issues quickly fade into the background. Soon Wick’s life is torn apart (again) when a group of mobsters, led by Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones – an actor who has ‘being a massive prick’ down to a fine art – steal his car and murder his dog. Robbed of his chance to mourn in peace, Wick comes out of retirement to seek bloody revenge on the entire Russian mob.

Once free of its somewhat laboured setup, John Wick quickly reveals itself to be a fine action movie. A surprisingly light-hearted noir-flavoured romp, each violent gun battle segueing almost directly into the next with very little downtime.  These action sequences are stunningly choreographed, yet also somewhat restrained and human. There is very little showing off here: gun fights are balletic, dripping with style and thumping music, but also direct and to the point. While Reeves may fumble somewhat in his portrayal of Wick the mourning husband, he excels as Wick the highly trained murderer: There’s a sense that he is operating right at the limits of his abilities always the superior fighter, but never the unbeatable action hero. He grunts, sweats and swears his way through every encounter, achieving victory through grim determination more than anything else.

The film also discovers an unexpected sense of humour. Beneath all the grim dark posturing, there is a comic book vibe to Wick’s portrayal of New York’s seedy underworld. There are special hotels just for hitmen, where the need for total discretion, twenty-four hour surgical care and dead body disposal is treated with an amusing nonchalance. Wick himself has an almost mythological status; everyone knows him, everyone is in awe of him, and the film has just enough self-awareness to make this potentially eye-rolling, Hollywood action star wish fulfillment really quite funny indeed.

It’s not that the problematic acting and dialogue go away, it’s simply that they cease to matter: Characters pop in and out of the film almost at random, the dialogue continues to be hypnotically banal, and yet the whole thing is such a boldly energetic, freewheeling juggernaut of sleek carnage you just won’t care.

John Wick is a deeply silly film about a God-like hitman single-handedly taking on an entire crime syndicate because they killed his dog, but it’s also a wonderfully fresh, fun action movie. This is The Bourne Identity by way of Marvel comics, with perhaps just a touch of Sin City.

Almost everyone dies, but you’ll have a smile on your face.

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