January 31, 2023
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Life & Culture

Review: Reeves returns to action stardom in ‘John Wick’

"John Wick"

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Laying on the floor of his living room, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is in a pool of his own blood, battered and beaten. Curled up next to him is Daisy, a puppy given to him as a final gift from his dying wife, killed by the gangsters who left him beaten. Bruised and angry, he rises, and with a sledgehammer unearths a cache of weapons from his basement floor, ready to embark on a quest for one thing: revenge, no matter the cost.

Thus begins “John Wick,” a slick and gory tale of revenge that follows Wick, a recently widowed ex-hitman with an insatiable craving for justice. Audiences follow Wick as he hunts his attacker, the son (Alfie Allen) of powerful Russian crime-lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). On paper, “John Wick” may sound like the cookie-cutter action film, but much like its protagonist, the film proves to be far more than it seems, bringing with it a welcome sense of play to its gratuitous violence.

At the forefront of “John Wick” is its titular, gun-toting protagonist, portrayed by the grizzled yet still spry Reeves. As Wick, “The Matrix” star reprises his role as an action icon as he throws punches, crashes cars and dispatches an almost comical number of hardened criminals. For those who can recall the days of Reeves’ past glory, “John Wick” will bring with it an extra dimension of intrigue, though that knowledge is by no means required — the film’s cheeky violence makes it markedly accessible, and there will be no trouble getting behind Wick’s blood-drenched ventures.

Combat throughout the film is rendered with astonishing precision, thanks to the film’s excellent fight choreography. Watching as Wick dispatches one thug after another is thrilling and commendably realistic, with often forgotten aspects of gunfights, like reloading, being taken into account in each conflict. In one instance, Wick’s home is besieged by armed assailants, whereupon he slides in between furniture, using the home’s unique architecture to outwit and confuse the intruders. All of this is executed in a way that feels well conceived and grounded in reality, adding to the film’s tension and immersion immensely.

This appreciation of detail in the fight scenes encapsulates what is most impressive about “John Wick”: how much it enjoys being an action movie. The film unabashedly revels in every imaginable action flick trope — the cheesy one-liners and boisterous Russian crime lord, to name a few — and miraculously revives their cinematic intrigue. As audiences follow Reeves’ rampage through the Russian crime world, they’re presented with a wonderful sense of self-awareness, providing just enough “cheese” to pair with its otherwise grim premise.

In the wake of these tropes, however, do come a few lesser moments. As “John Wick” embraces the campy realm of action cinema, it suffers in the realm of serious narrative. Reeves’ lines occasionally verge on sounding dim, and a cringe-worthy Boogey Man metaphor ultimately works against the film. If it wasn’t for the audacious context of the rest of the film, these moments would surely be more damning, but even among this extravagant violence they don’t particularly succeed.

Despite these brief hiccups, “John Wick” still prevails as one of the most engaging and genuinely fun action films in recent memory. It presents a brand of action that refuses to take itself too seriously, opting to use it’s genre’s cliches to deliver all the thrills audiences come to expect from action films. With its engaging combat and a strong lead performance, “John Wick” proves to be a bullet-strewn romp worth seeing.

Steven Pirani can be reached at spirani1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @stevenpirani