When a movie character's last name is synonymous with "fuse," the audience will be wondering when to expect his meltdown. In John Wick, that happens not when John's beloved wife - who has finally succumbed to a long illness - has been laid in the ground, and not when Iosef (Alfie Allen), the loutish son of a Russian mob boss, accosts him at a gas station. For John (Keanu Reeves), the ultimate insult comes when Iosef and his thugs break into John's upscale home and kill his dog.
Brilliant in its simplicity, the setup of John Wick, like the rest of the movie, passes swiftly and efficiently. Harboring few ambitions beyond knock-your-socks-off action sequences, this crafty revenge thriller delivers with so much style - and even some wit - that the lack of substance takes longer than it should to become problematic. Until then, we're content to tag along as John, revealed as the ne plus ultra of former assassins, comes out of retirement and into the cross hairs.
His journey may be a movie staple, but its execution here is near flawless. Herding great actors into small roles, the director, Chad Stahelski (a seasoned stunt man directing for the first time), wisely capitalizes on their experience and skills: Willem Dafoe as John's shady mentor; John Leguizamo as a chop-shop owner, bringing real subtlety to an all-too-brief scene; a formidable Ian McShane, parked in a gleaming bad-guy hotel like a menacing pasha; and the marvelous Michael Nyqvist, who plays the mob boss with more dignity and nuance than Derek Kolstad's silly script deserves.
Filming in New York City and Rockland County, Chad (who was Keanu's stunt double in Constantine and two of the Matrix films) proves an elegant and inventive choreographer of movement. His fight scenes, whether staged in club or church or bath house, are fluidly coherent, his performers so proficient that there's no need to fudge the action. Even in lengthy sequences where John is required to pulverize a veritable conga line of attackers, Chad and his director of photography, Jonathan Sela, hold tight and close - an unwavering synergy of camera and motion.
And then there's Keanu, always more comfortable in roles that demand cool over hot, attitude over emotion. Never at ease as one of a pack or as a romantic lead, he's a loner with a dancer's walk (from the hips, not the knees) and a physical charisma that the camera locks on to. Here, costumed in an indestructible three-piece suit, he's the perfect locus for the film's hyper-real savagery, the drain that everyone will eventually circle. Infused with codes and totems - like the dog collar and bracelet carefully aligned on John's bedside table - John Wick conjures a natty netherworld of lethal temperaments and impeccable tailoring. John's quest may be one-note, but that note could not be more perfectly pitched.