Wicked Cool Action: Keanu Reeves in JOHN WICK

Keanu Reeves in John Wick (moive Poster)Keanu Reeves has spent the last 30 years playing every type of role from stoner to savior and can list some truly transformative films on his resume, from MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) to THE MATRIX trilogy (THE MATRIX, 1999; THE MATRIX RELOADED, 2003; and THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, also in 2003). Mixed in are several crowd pleasers such as SPEED (1994), CONSTANTINE (2005), and THE LAKE HOUSE (2006). And of course, BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and BILL AND TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY (1991).

This should comprise a respectable resume for any actor, yet Reeves still don't get no respect. Whether miscast (DRACULA, 1992) or misguided (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, 2008), Reeves has unfortunately balanced his successes with – less successful films, shall we say, until a final legacy consisting of the "Sad Keanu" meme and the word "Whoa" is a very real danger. His previous two outings, 47 RONIN (2013) and MAN OF TAI CHI (2013), didn't help much – though both sound appealing to action fans, Reeves was shoehorned into the former and played the villain in the latter (which was also his directorial debut), while leaving the star turn to stunt-man buddy Tiger Chen Lin Hu.

The latest action flick to star Keanu Reeves, JOHN WICK, goes a long way toward tipping the scales back in the positive direction. Reeves plays the title character John Wick, a grieving husband whose wife has recently died of some nameless disease of the week. This situation is laid out with great economy so the movie can get to the action.

Said action arrives in the form of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, GAME OF THRONES), the spoiled son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, the original Mikal Blomqvist from the GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy). Allen does an excellent job demonstrating what's wrong with kids today, but when his character, Tarasov, takes a shine to Wick's '69 Mustang and decides to help himself to it, we learn he's messed with the wrong man – our grieving husband left a life as a legendary hitman for the Russian Mob, and now there's nothing to hold him back from diving into that life once more, guns blazing. (There's a bit more than the car going on, but that way lies Spoilerville, a most disappointing destination.)

John Wick is the strong and silent type, an excellent choice for Reeves. The supporting cast provides most of the color. In addition to Allen and Nyqvist – who is excellent as the mob boss Tarasov, who tries desperately to save his son while still anticipating the inevitable – the movie boasts Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki (G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013), RED DAWN (2012)) as fellow hit-persons. John Leguizamo and Ian McShane also contribute some very nice moments.

These performances are just the icing on the cake, though. And all due respect to Reeves, but in JOHN WICK, the action is the real star. This is not surprising, as the co-directors – David Leitch and Chad Stahelski – are both former stuntmen. Leitch has done stunts and fight choreography for films such as V FOR VENDETTA (2005), FIGHT CLUB (1999) and 300 (2006). Stahelski has a background in Jeet Kune Do and has done stunts and fight choreography for THE MATRIX and its two sequels, HUNGER GAMES (2012), THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), MAN OF TAI CHI, and THE WOLVERINE (2013). He often doubles for Keanu, and even doubled for the late Brandon Lee in THE CROW (1994).

With Leitch and Stahelski filling the director chairs, Jonathan Eusebio came onboard as stunt coordinator for JOHN WICK. Eusebio has done some impressive fight choreography for IRON MAN 2 (2010), THE EXPENDABLES (2010), HAYWIRE (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012), THE WOLVERINE, and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014).

The results are spectacular. The fight scenes are gritty and complex, the camerawork aggressively tight while still following the action. A refreshing lack of jump cuts keeps the fights from becoming disorienting and lets them actually add to the story, playing up Wick's legendary lethal focus on the unfortunates he intends to mow down. The gun play is flashy and blends seamlessly into brutal hand-to-hand fighting time and again throughout, while the use of non-glamourous but highly effective wrestling techniques when the fights go to the ground adds a touch of realism. While not as mind-blowingly brilliant as the action in such movies as THE RAID (2011) and THE RAID 2 (2014), still, this is far above standard Hollywood fodder.

As the center of the action, Reeves deserves some respect for this effort. Though he has dabbled in the martial arts from time to time, he certainly doesn’t practice it day to day as a life discipline. He is, foremost, an actor. However, one reason the camera can follow the action so closely is that Reeves clearly did not rely on his stunt doubles, taking on some difficult fight sequences that involved hard and acrobatic takedowns. He also does not rely on his legendary good looks. This not a glamour role for Reeves. His hair is best described as scraggly, and he gets down and dirty throughout.

It's becoming apparent from his growing oeuvre of action films, including films such as MAN OF TAI CHI which bring in the philosophy behind the action, that Reeves is enamored of the martial arts and committed to both promoting and popularizing them.

Other important elements such as soundtrack and setting work very well. The hitman hangout Wick calls home base as he runs the Russian punk to ground is depicted as a five-star hotel with strict conventions on acceptable behavior. There’s a nobility to the dealings among hit-persons, rules of etiquette that dare not be broken. This veneer of normalcy over a thriving criminal society provides some nice tongue-in-cheek humor.

With its loud-and-fast cars and the throbbing music and strobing lights of underground nightclubs, JOHN WICK wets the audience's appetite for mayhem and then throws open the door to a visceral feast of gruesome violence.

Bon appetit!

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About Lori Ann White :
Find us on facebook Lori Ann White is a copy editor for Kung Fu Tai Chi. She is also freelance writer who has studied Shaolin Kung Fu with her Sifu Wing Lam for so many years that she is now studying Sun-style taiji with him instead.

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