Keanu Reeves is an actor that gets a lot of stick, but he has strengths and weaknesses like any other. Have him not say much, have simple motivations and maybe get in a good action scene and he can be good (The Matrix). Have him talk a lot, convey complex ideas or emotions or have chemistry with other actors and he's pretty darn bad (The Matrix sequels). John Wick is a movie that benefits from staying in Keanu Reeves' wheel house and ends up being an entertaining action movie, though one that never goes quite as far as you might like.
As John Wick set out the stall of its plot I amused myself imagining that this came right out of somebody's screenwriting class. Writer Derek Kolstad came into class with a script about a retired badass whose perfect wife was killed by bad guys goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against the men who took her from him. His teacher tells him how cliche and reductive that is (now more than ever), so Derek comes back in next week with something completely different: a retired badass whose perfect wife was killed by natural causes goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against the men who took his car and killed his puppy. The thing is, it's really effective! Reeves crying as he reads the letter from his wife explaining why she posthumously gifted him this dog is as real and emotional as I've ever seen him and whereas I would've been rolling my eyes hard if the evil Russian mobsters fridged his wife, when they killed that poor little dog I was instantly on board with him slaughtering all of them.
There's a whole world of criminals and assassins that Wick reintroduces himself too that gives off the vibe of picking up a comic that's already a few issues in, which is enhanced by the comic-book style captions that come up whenever people are speaking Russian (and even sometimes when John is speaking English), complete with important words that are bolden for emphasis. Between that and that self-aware tone there's a Garth Ennis air about John Wick, which is no bad thing. There are rules and structure to this society of ne'er do wells, with clean up crews, their own special hotel, and a gold coin payment system. Everybody has a past with Wick to some degree. Not a lot of detail is provided in these areas, which worked in the films favour. It gave it a fun, stylised sensibility that again suggested it wasn't taking itself too seriously. It called to mind Constantine, another film where Keanu Reeves was a reluctant badass in a society with all its own rules (Djimon Hounsou's nighclub=Ian McShane's hotel), the difference being that that film had Rachel Weisz and/or Shia LaBeouf constantly on hand to have everything explained to them. Exposition is not a skill Keanu possesses. John Wick just wants to see him kick and shoot people.
The action in the film is all well-executed and well choreographed. Where this film could easily be drab (again, refer to every Taken knock off of the last few years), it's in the fight scenes that the enthusiasm of the people behind this film comes through, someone's clearly been watching a lot of John Woo. After a while though, it gets a little samey. Having the main character be the sharpest shooter and the blackest belt in the room is hardly new territory for the wish fulfillment of action, but Wick breezes through everybody with relative ease and there's only so many scowling dark-haired Russians you can see get kicked then punched then shot before you start wanting something new. Variety is so important to action but here all the henchmen are the same.
Willem Dafoe plays an old friend of John's hired to take him out but there's no tension to that as he starts helping him instead immediately. Adrianne Palicki plays a leather-clad assassin whose after John but she basically gets one scene with him and is then cut off doing something else for the rest of the movie. And everyone's at the same basic level of martial arts mastery. Particularly with this films comic book/video game resemblance it would have benefitted from more goofy henchmen-an 8 foot tall guy, someone with a bazooka etc. Perhaps I've been spoiled recently by a visceral weekend of Daredevil on Netflix or some more insane action I've reviewed recently but considering that this movie was clearly happy to go over the top I ended up wanting it to go just that bit further. Because of the repetitiveness (not just in the action, there's probably at least two characters too many who knew John from the old days that don't go anywhere) and the basic plot, the film ends up feeling a bit too long, with John's revenge begetting the bad guy's revenge begetting John getting even more revenge. It's a good thing revenge is best served cold because here it's been left out so long it's gone stone cold. It's a 90 minute film that could easily cut 15 and not lose much.
In the end John Wick was definitely entertaining enough but fell just a bit short of expectations. Keanu looked to be having fun (as much fun as it looks like he can have certainly) and you could do a lot worse for an action movie but you can do a lot better as well. File this one somewhere around the Smolkin' Aces or Shoot 'Em Up level of action movies.