John Wick (Keanu Reeves) takes out most of the first 12 men with a handgun, though a few require a knife or a good, old-fashioned neck breaking. The next 20 or so are shot and stabbed. The next group receives high-velocity rounds to the chest, neck, and head. A really sneering man gets choked to death, his breathing slowing down until a steady jerk results in a crisp snap. And more shootings, stabbings, and beatings are still to come. John Wick is a legendary hit man for a New York City-based Russian mobster, though Wick retired when he met the right woman (Bridget Moynahan). An unspecified illness takes her from his life, and her final gift to Wick is a beagle puppy. She knew her stoic, withdrawn husband would need somebody to fill the existential void in his soul created by her loss. She was right. And, wouldn't you know it, some young Russian hoodlums see Wick's choice vintage car and decide they want to steal it, breaking into his house, beating him up, and, that's right, killing his dog in the process.
They just messed with the wrong man. Every time he thinks he’s out they pull him back in. This time it’s personal. Veteran stuntman/stunt coordinator David Leitch and former kick-boxer/stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski make their directing debut in this completely cliché-driven revenge flick penned by Derek Kolstad, so you know what to expect.
But seriously, if you’ve ever been one of those people who would do anything for your pet—aka, a human—”John Wick” unfolds like pure id wish fulfillment. Pet owners can get borderline homicidal when people eyeball their kitties and puppies funny. Thinking about somebody actually harming an animal is enough to send my wife into angry tears right now. “John Wick” is that rage distilled into action-movie nonsense, and if the filmmakers have any smarts they’re already thinking about how to turn this into a franchise as bankable as “The Fast and the Furious.” Far too many user-generated videos exist out there featuring people harming animals. Methinks a movie series doling out vengeance on the people who do those things might have a built-in audience.
Of course, the only thing wrong with this impulse is everything. Just as “Taken” expressed a father’s love through a homicidal rampage, in the world of “Wick” utter annihilation is what happens when a heterosexual white man gets a serious case of the feels, an atrociously sad statement about humanity. What’s even worse, save a few notable exceptions, America has a healthy history of making vigilante-powered revenge flick, which probably reveals a few uncomfortable truths about our psyches. Is wanton violence an utterly amoral response to a feeling of being wronged? Of course. Will you feel like clapping when John Wick uses one hand to hammer a knife into the chest of a henchman sent to kill him? Quite possibly.
Directors Leitch and Stahelski waste little story getting into the action, and the entire film is a series of shoot-outs/fights linked together. Much like he did in “The Midnight Meat Train,” cinematographer Jonathan Sela sucks the color from this NYC, creating a gray city where spots of seedy neon red light up like fresh wounds.
Best of all, Wick is right in Reeves' sweet spot, portraying the kind of man who can really only hold one thought in his head. Reeves does the non-thinking-too-much man of action well, and the lone idea in his head here is a perennial: Smite douchebags. So from now on, anytime the cloying opening moments of Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel' announces that wrist-slitting ASPCA commercial on TV, don't immediately change the channel. Instead, imagine Neo getting guns, lots of guns, and becoming the equalizing, punishing, death-wishing John Wick, avenger of wronged animals.