There aren’t many movies like “John Wick,” an absurdly simple shoot-em-up starring Keanu Reeves that says absolutely nothing ardently and with lots of style. The film’s many pleasures and problems are purely cinematic. Its meaninglessness is part of its charm.
Reeves plays Wick, a ruthless, tattooed assassin pulled out of retirement when a random break-in at his home results in the stealing of his car and the brutal slaying of his beagle. The lost Mustang he can handle, but the bloodied puppy, which was a posthumous gift from his wife, sets him off on a tour de force of revenge that would give even Quentin Tarantino cause to quiver.
But unlike the films of that director, “John Wick” lacks memorable characters and its vengeance isn’t grounded in any historical or social context. Its world is deliberately self-contained, governed by a criminal code and populated by anonymous baddies. The way Wick dispenses with them — so very violently in so many ways — resembles the frenetic grace of a video game.
First-time directors Chad Stahelski (formerly Reeves’ stunt double) and David Leitch acknowledge that medium — the climactic showdown is even treated like a boss fight — but they can’t quite harness its vicarious offerings. Though impressive, the intricately choreographed shootouts and brawls only amplify a pervading sense of detachment. “John Wick” is a film to be seen and heard, not felt.
The movie is best in its first half, when grave facial expressions comically reveal that Wick is not the puppy-cuddling softy he appears to be in the opening scenes. When a crime lord with past ties to Wick realizes his son was responsible for the animal’s death, his understated fear of the consequences is not only played for laughs, but provides the audience a different way at looking at Reeves, traditionally a friendly screen presence.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his performance, but Reeves’ exaggerated, cartoonish anger is at least commensurate with the film’s high-octane momentum. Still, both fizzle out somewhere near the third act. Too committed to its silly, rather upsetting premise — the dog has more personality than the human characters — the film can’t sustain an hour-and-a-half of hollow mayhem, however beautifully staged it may be.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Oct. 30, 2014.