There are a number of famous actors out there who are known for doing just one thing. Nicolas Cage is known for doing really offbeat throwaway movies where his wonky acting style can go full ham. Al Pacino is known for roles where he screams a lot for no reason. Robert DeNiro is the guy you go to for New York gangster-esque faces. And Jack Nicholson is who you call up when you need a creepy old guy who just might be psychotic.
But to only bring these actors up would be a disservice to the reigning champion of one-note actors. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Keanu Reeves, otherwise known as the dude who goes, “Whoa.” Ever since The Matrix (and even before that film), Keanu has acquired an infamy for his withdrawn (or stoned) performances. This is a man who seems to approach every scene as if told to play a robot. His tone is dull, monotone and, oftentimes, hard to take seriously. Some would say that this makes him a joke of an actor. To those people it is a constant surprise that he gets any roles at all. But not everyone believes that. To others, this acting “method” allows him to present the perfect “everyman”, the character who allows the audience to project themselves into the action as if they were there themselves. It’s all in the eye of the beholder and, I won’t lie, I have long been in the camp of those who laugh at the fact that Keanu manages to keep getting work given the way he seems to just phone everything in.
From that standpoint, it’s a miracle that I went to go see John Wick at all. But this was a special case for me. I kept seeing outrageous headlines for this movie (I never read the reviews themselves). “An Action Classic Shot Right Into Your Face.” “John Wick Will Blow Your Brains Out.” “A Thrill Ride Driven By A Relentless Vengeance Machine!” Every single review of this movie heralds this as the greatest action movie EVER SEEN! So, despite my reservations of Keanu Reeves, I decided to let myself jump on the biggest hype train I’ve ever created for myself. I told my friends that, “WE HAVE TO SEE THIS MOVIE!” I pumped up everyone’s expectations, along with my own. All without knowing anything about the movie beyond Keanu’s presences. Nonetheless, in the first few minutes before the film started in the theater, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “Are you ready for the ride of your fucking LIFE?!” I was ready for some weird Keanu shit, my friends. And boy did John Wick deliver.
Setting the Foundation for Insanity
John Wick starts innocently enough. We see the titular character living alone, his wife having just died of a long-term illness some days before. He has a comfortable, albeit lonely house. He goes out and drives his expensive car around at top speeds in empty areas to relieve stress. He then returns home and goes to sleep at a reasonable hour.
After John attends the funeral of his wife, he arrives home to see a man at the door holding a kennel with a dog in it. An envelope comes with it, a letter from his wife inside. Knowing that her own death was soon, John’s wife had arranged for a puppy to be delivered to John after her death, to give him doggy companionship in these hard days, in the hope that he would not forget how to live his life without her. It’s an extremely sad and bittersweet moment, and one that further hits home when you see just how damn cute this dog is. Seriously, John’s puppy is the most adorable pooch I’ve ever seen in a movie, and John Wick makes sure that we see this.
After a few days of bliss with the dog, John goes to refuel his car at a gas station and catches the eye of a mobster (played by Alfie Allen, of Game of Thrones fame). The mobster impulsively decides that he wants the car. So he gathers his buddies, breaks into his John’s house, beats John within an inch of his life, kills the dog, and steals the car. Given that this dog represents the final parting gift of John’s dying wife, the reaction is… less than pretty.
Hopping on the Crazy Train
I will say this: John Wick does not have the most original plot ever seen in a film. This is a standard revenge thriller, most reminiscent of The Punisher. A man’s love is taken from him, prompting him to go on an enraged rampage of revenge. There are a few key differences here, though, that make it stand out.
First among these is the pooch. I have often found it a bit strange that our culture almost glorifies violence that is human -> human but, if violence is targeted towards an animal, words cannot describe the fury this elicits in people. Nonetheless, it is incredibly effective here. The moment the dog is threatened, you, like John Wick himself, are ready to beat the everliving paste out of every gangster within a hundred miles of John’s home. This immediately puts you in the main character’s head. It also conveniently helps to justify and support all the nastiness that comes after. Consequently, we are rooting for John the whole time, even when he dips into the territory of violence that occasionally reaches grotesque levels.
Second is the comedy underlying every aspect of this movie. Though John Wick’s beginning is serious, once revenge mode kicks in everything gets a little bit… funny. John Wick is a retired assassin and, while he was working, he was the greatest assassin ever known. This reputation becomes a running joke during the film as evidenced by a scene where the mobster seeks help from his mob boss father. The mob boss is completely indifferent to the theft and assault but, once he hears who his son did this to, his nonchalance is replaced by a look of utter horror. Immediately, the mob boss puts out a contract for millions of dollars for anyone who can kill John. When this proves harder than expected, the mob boss simply says, “Screw it. My son is just dead then. John Wick CAN’T be stopped.” You see this sort of reaction from dangerous criminal masterminds, police, and more. And it never gets old.
There are a number of other aspects of John Wick that made it one hell of a ride, and one worth the money and more. Tapping into the skills he trained during the filming of The Matrix, the fight scenes in John Wick are high-octane madness, with a mixture of kung fu and incredible gun battles that rival the best seen in movies. Keanu has found his niche here, as his wooden and dour acting technique is put to perfect use as an impossibly cold and dangerous assassin who has lost everything. Surprisingly, there is a lot to John Wick that makes it marvelously entertaining, and its pacing is non-stop once the ball gets rolling. So long as you have no problem with violence, John Wick is one of the biggest surprise hits this year that has completely changed how I view Keanu Reeves movies. Now I can say, without reservation, that when I see the trailer for his next movie, I won’t be exasperated. I’ll be pumped as hell.