Sad Keanu turns Mad Keanu – mad as Hell – in what may just be the best American action movie in decades, the stylish, neo-noir John Wick.

Reeling from the death of his beloved wife (Bridget Moynihan), the grieving, distraught John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds hope and a reason to go on in his wife’s posthumous parting gift, an adorable Beagle puppy named Daisy along with a note reading: “You still need something, someone to love. The car doesn’t count.”

The car in question is John’s classic Mustang muscle car which soon catches the eye of passing Russian Mafia clown prince Iosef (Game Of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) who bumps into John at the petrol station and doesn’t take kindly to John’s curt refusal to his demands to sell him the car. Breaking into John’s cleanly, minimalist home that night, Iosef and his thugs brutally beat John, viciously kill Daisy and steal the car.

But Iosef has messed with the wrong man. Until he retired to get married, John was the deadliest hitman in the business, a fearsome killer known as the Boogeyman in the employ of Iosef’s father, Russian Mob Godfather Viggo (The Girl With The MacBook’s Michael Nyquist), who informs the skittish Iosef: “He was the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman.” Breaking out an arsenal of weapons and a neat line in coolly unfussy dark suits, John finds a new purpose in life – revenge…

Working with a brutally simple and familiar premise – revenge and honour forces hitman out of retirement for that one last job – co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leith, both veteran stuntmen who previously choreographed the stunts for Keanu’s directorial debut Man Of Tai Chi (Stahelski also doubling for Keanu in The Matrix movies) reinvigorate the action genre by eschewing the fast cuts and CGI that have become endemic, stripping the action back to basics and relying on their elaborate choreography, long, intricate takes and their charismatic leading man to carry the audience through the film’s many brutal fight scenes and percussive, wildly kinetic gun battles, cinematographer Jonathan Sela covering the action mostly in wide shot as Reeves’ John, like some sort of vengeance-driven, demonic Dorothy, descends from the almost monochrome, desaturated real world into the more colourful, neon-splashed Oz of a near-mythical, Gotham-esque, hyper-real New York underworld.

And that underworld is perhaps John Wick’s boldest aesthetic gambit, Stahelski, Leitch and screenwriter Derek Kolstad creating a stark (in the Richard Stark sense), noirish, and very formal, parallel universe where gold pieces of eight are the dominant currency, where specialist cleaners (more workmanlike, blue collar cousins of Nikita’s demented Victor the Cleaner or Pulp Fiction’s dapper Wolf) get rid of your bodies and assassins network in the sanctuary of The Continental, a specialist hotel and club owned by a suave, silkily Mephistophelean Ian McShane, where the unflappable manager (The Wire’s Lance Reddick) caters to your every need and where the price of breaking the hotel’s neutrality and committing violence on the premises is severe indeed.

Taciturn, driven and radiating an almost Zen fury as he decimates the army of goons sent against him, Reeves has rarely been better. Still handsome and lean at 50, his John Wick is a mythic, melancholy antihero, equal parts John Woo-era Chow Yun Fat, Alain Delon’s Le Samourai and Point Blank’s Lee Marvin, an implacable avatar of death, meting out practically Old Testament justice against Nyquist’s wily, calmly fatalistic gang boss, Allen’s wonderfully odious, bratty thug (he kills a puppy for God’s sake; he has it coming) and Dean Winters’ slimy Mob fixer, Willem Dafoe and the sleek Adrianne Palicki providing strong support as fellow assassins, one honourable, one duplicitous.

Cool stylish, exhilarating and darkly funny, John Wick is a smart, fun, breathlessly exciting, balls-to-the-wall, old-fashioned B-movie that’s as relentless as it’s brooding protagonist. And if you don’t wipe away a surreptitious tear when Daisy gets it, you’re a nasty, heartless scumbag the equal of Alfie Allen.

Movie Review: John Wick
5.0Overall Score
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