In every wandering Zen master’s life, a little yin, a little yang. Destiny hasn’t exactly favoured Keanu Reeves in the decade since his participation in the Matrix trilogy made him a millennial posterboy: heading out East, he sent back a pricey flop in the form of 2013’s listless 47 Ronin update, while his presence in indie romcom Generation Um… drummed up a mere £24 of business in UK cinemas – an unthinkable state of affairs for a star once considered one of the industry’s hottest properties.
If John Wick, which is mostly yin, has been claimed as a comeback, that’s surely because it is in part all about a comeback – an action movie where the hero is stomped so far down that his only recourse is to start throwing punches. We join the eponymous Mr. Wick (Reeves) in the front seat of a crashed car, gutshot, shivering and holding onto memories of better days – halcyon moments, recalled in flashback, before cancer removed him of his beloved, and the ill-disciplined son of a Russian mobster (Alfie Allen) slaughtered the puppy wifey left him as a posthumous present.
This last plot point is weirdly crucial to John Wick; it’s presented, utterly without irony, as an extension of the dumb-loyal puppy love Keanu once inspired – and possibly still inspires – in fanboys and girls alike. The rampage Wick subsequently embarks upon can therefore be underpinned and tempered by audience knowledge that this ruthless killer, with his basement full of guns, did once, unlike his foes, care deeply for such a cute ickle creature.
The set-up is as pared-down as the hero’s name, but the film gets stranger, and slightly less persuasive, as Wick emerges from seclusion and heads into a comic-book Gotham to strike at the heart of the Russians’ empire. Suddenly, we find ourselves in vaguely Lynchian nightclubs overseen by Ian McShane (!) and accessed via gold coins that bear no real relation to any earthly currency.
The stuntman partnership of Chad Stahelski (who directs) and David Leitch (who produces) add several more cartoonish flourishes to this meat-and-potatoes scenario. Their appreciably scrappy, non-virtual scraps have been choreographed, shot and edited in such a way as to allow us to see and feel every hit; during one shootout in the aforementioned nightclub, Wick is witnessed moving so fast he has time to reload his gun between blowing away whole armies of bad guys.
Is John Wick the Point Blank-like pop-art masterpiece certain members of the Twitterati have positioned it as? Not really – if anything, it’s closer to a post-John Woo knockoff like 1995’s Crying Freeman, and still a long way from the thespy muscularity of the recent Run All Night. Stahelski gives it some semblance of unifying style – a muted but distinctive blue-grey colour palette, a doomy Marilyn Manson dirge moving proceedings along – but it’s thin-to-threadbare at best, hardly distinguishable from that of a half-dozen films that went straight-to-VHS circa 1996.
Still, that resemblance in itself is telling. What you cheer here is the rediscovery not just of a much-maligned star, but of a format the studios have lately blown out of proportion or entirely forgotten about: the passably satisfying B-movie that comes in somewhere close to established B-movie running time, yet still delivers the goods of a Saturday night. Set against the altogether steroidal Fast & Furious 7, such a bare-bones beat-‘em-up can’t help but seem rather quaint, and – in a manner Zen Master Keanu might appreciate – somewhat cleansing.
John Wick is now available on DVD through Warner Bros.; a sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, opens in cinemas nationwide - and will be reviewed here - on Friday.