There’s this stigma that surrounds Keanu Reeves and I don’t think it’s warranted. No, the guy doesn’t have that much range. He’s basically got two modes he excels in: Ted and man of action.
Of course he hasn’t really reprised Ted-mode since the second of the underrated Bill and Ted films (unless you count his short cameo in Alex ‘Bill’ Winters’ Freaked) but the action man trope is something he’s visited many times with varying amounts of success. I would argue that a lot of his failures haven’t so much been because of Reeves’ abilities but instead largely on a pile of bad scripts and a lack of understanding in how to use him.
Much like other actors like, say, Jackie Chan or John Wayne, Reeves doesn’t have a ton of range, but he excels when he gets in the hands of a smart moviemaker that knows what to do with him. Speed and The Matrix are of course the most prominent examples. John Wick should also be added to that list, because David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is a very smart, taut and well rendered example of its genre that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other beloved entries. In fact, if I were to describe it in terms of mixing examples, it would be Payback mixed with Drive. In fact, it hit me the way Drive must have for a lot of people, given the way they described their experiences with it.
The basics are that Reeves plays the title character, a former hit man that left the mob awash in blood and death. After losing his wife, (his initial reason for getting out) he finds himself dragged back into the life in order to revenge himself against the very people he used to work for. His world is populated with fantastic character actors like Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki doing great work as his colleagues and Michael Nyqvist doing a lot of heavy lifting as a Russian boss.
Part of the reason it is a success is because it doesn’t make Reeves do a lot of that heavy lifting, mostly being satisfied to let his actions speak for him as he bounces off the other characters in the film. Despite that, I would say it comes across as his most impressive performance. Does that make a ton of sense? Maybe not. Yet that’s how it felt watching the movie.
Also making an impression is the smart way that the filmmakers build an established mythology around Wick, but never take it too far. They spend a good deal of the run time building him up as a threat before unchaining him and when he does break loose, it lives up to the hype. The action sequences themselves manage to be both exciting and fluid without seeming too staged. They are expertly rendered.
They also do a good job of creating a mob-based society that functions under the surface of the regular world that stretches credulity without ever hitting the breaking point. Take the club where professional killers gather in the middle of the city with its own established rules and an entry cost of a gold coin. This could easily be taken to a ridiculous level and in many films today, it would be. Especially if there’s a chance at a sequel or a franchise. But in John Wick it mostly exists as an interesting aside that helps further the main plot. Leitch and Stahelski use it to spice up the film and create atmosphere, but they lose the focus on Wick and his quest for vengeance in their storytelling.
You might be getting tired of me listing things that work in the film, but I’d also be neglectful if I didn’t bring up the crackerjack script that is full of hard-boiled dialogue. Yet it offers a lot of opportunity to the actors to contribute, sometimes letting them create a huge laugh with a single word.
If there’s a downside to the film, it would probably be that if you are familiar with the genre, you aren’t going to see anything particularly new. But sometimes isn’t solid competence enough? Not every film has to reinvent the wheel or serve as deconstructionist meta-commentary. This movie is absolutely solid and I find myself liking it even more upon reflection. It makes lots of good decisions. It will hopefully serve as a precursor for even better things to come for this pair. I’m arguing with myself over how high to grade it and in the end I’m going to err on the high side. I hope people find this film because it will come as a very pleasant surprise to many.
(Four damns given out of five)