It is possible? Could it be? Did Keanu Reeves star in a good action movie this year? I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself, but I can assure you that yes, Keanu Reeves was in a very good action movie that bends cliches, impresses with its stunts, and ditches most modern action techniques in favor of a style that blends the old-fashioned with something fresh. Does it redefine the action movie as we know it? It's not that good. But just about everything it does, it does well, and for a low-budget action movie in 2014 starring Keanu fucking Reeves, that's kind of a miracle.
I'd rather not discuss the plot at length here because the way the film unfolds is something you want to experience rather than read about. Reeves stars as is a seemingly average man dealing with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. However, due to a string of convenient circumstances, we find out that he has a shady past as an assassin for the Russian mafia, led by Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). But he wasn't just an assassin; they called him "The Boogeyman," because he was the best in the business. To deal with a personal vendetta, Wick is on the hunt for Tarasov's son Iosef (Alfie Allen), and even with leagues of hit men after him (Willem Defoe and Adrianne Palicki), nothing will stop him from getting to his goal.
I know that's pretty vague and all, but the setup is the only story-heavy aspect of the movie, and I'd prefer not to spoil it all here. This is a vengeance film, and while I typically find revenge to be a very boring character motivation (see my X-Men Origins: Wolverine review), I couldn't help but sympathize with Wick. Iosef is a spoiled brat who takes something very precious from Wick, and throughout the film you are rooting for Wick to find him and kill his ass. The way the action scenes are played out is mind-blowingly awesome at times, with each punch and kick (while obviously choreographed) landing with real weight and power that's lacking in something like, say, the recent Marvel movies. I don't want to make it seem like I glorify violence, but if you're gonna be an R-rated action movie be a god damn R-rated action movie. Most action scenes are accomplished with minimal editing, meaning you get to see complex stunts and choreography in full. A fight scenes in a dance club matches perfectly in time with bass-heavy music to create a truly thrilling experience. Not only that, but the action is shot without disorienting shaky-cam, a style that I'm becoming more and more intolerant of. There's some CGI blood in the mix to help accomplish this, but I'll take that over a bloodless, sterile, explosion fest any day.
The movie is more than just great action though; the opening scenes are a beautiful example of telling a story without narration or dialogue. Things are shown to us. Emotions are felt. Wick doesn't tell anyone his wife died of cancer, we see his last few moments with her and then see the funeral. That's how you do exposition. Performances are great across the board, with every character perfectly cast and really living in their roles. I especially liked a creepy performance from Lance Reddick as the manager of the hotel Wick stays at. The critics are raving about Reeves' return to form, and I can definitely see what they mean. His physical acting is great, as are his facial expressions. But I don't know about some of his dialogue delivery... he still sounds a bit wooden to me. He is supposed to be a machine-like assassin, so maybe he's perfect and I should just shut up.
While the film may be light on plot, and doesn't explore every facet of its story the way it could have, the execution is so good that it's worth the price of admission just to see Reeves kick some ass. The director of the film is David Leitch, who makes his directing debut here but has a long history in the action movie business as a stunt double, actor, and second unit director (he was even Reeve's stunt double in The Matrix). Clearly all this experience has been a hell of an education for Leitch, because he's delivered the best action movie of the year in a year full of great action movies. Derek Kolstad, the film's writer, infuses the script with just enough self-aware humor to make you forget how ridiculous most of it is and how contrived a lot of the plot elements are. I'd dare say a bit of Quentin Tarantino's signature style sneaks its way into some of the scenes after the violence, a period in which most action screenwriters tend to ignore. Just where do all those dead bodies end up?
John Wick is a surprisingly good movie, my favorite kind of good movie. It's fast paced and tight as a drum; nothing drags on long enough for you to care that the story is awfully simple. It hardly matters anyway, it's just great to see Keanu Reeves in the limelight again after so many years of being in the cinematic doghouse. Sitting in the theater watching Reeves kick ass again was like seeing Nicholas Cage win another Oscar... it's just something I thought couldn't be done. Leave your common sense at the door and just enjoy this escapist action-fest for what it is.