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Keanu versus everybody John Wick'

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Action offering proves to be surprisingly strong

There are certain actors in Hollywood that for whatever reason have become punchlines. Their names have become a sort of shorthand for eccentric behavior and/or general ineptitude.

Keanu Reeves is one of those actors. Due to the choices that he has made in recent years not to mention his essential woodenness as a performer it has become an acceptable thing to laugh at the idea of Keanu Reeves. Not to the extent of a Nic Cage, certainly, but Keanu is definitely one of those punchlines. This means that his latest movie 'John Wick' is actually quite a pleasant surprise.

It's good, you see. Very good.

Reeves plays the titular John Wick, a guy living alone and dealing with the recent death of his beloved wife. His wife understanding the difficulties of grief actually arranges for a puppy to be delivered to John after she passes; a companion that might help him through his period of mourning. It's really quite sweet.

But when John takes his 1970 Mustang out for the day, he encounters a group of Russian thugs at the gas station. The lead thug (Alfie Allen, TV's 'Game of Thrones') takes an interest in John's cars, only to have his overtures spurned. Being a scumbag criminal, he and his crew follow John home in order to steal the car killing the dog for good measure.

This is a mistake.

As the young man (who is named Iosef and turns out to be the son of a Russian crime lord) is soon informed by his father Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, 'My So-Called Father'), John Wick is far from just some guy. He is actually one of the most ruthlessly efficient killers to ever work for the Tarasov organization; after accomplishing a seemingly impossible assignment, Tarasov granted Wick the freedom to start over with his new bride.

That dog was the last connection to Wick's wife; the only thing he had any true love left for. And so John Wick takes it upon himself to get back into the game, carving a bloody and bullet-riddled swath of destruction through the underworld in an effort to exact his revenge on Iosef, the man who so callously severed that connection and nothing will stand in his way.

This might be the most engaging Reeves has been in the 21st century. That isn't to say that he's wowing us with any sort of emotive breakthrough he's the same blandly handsome, largely affectless guy we've been enjoying for going on 30 years. But what 'John Wick' allows him to do is justbe. We've always known that Keanu has bona fide action appeal it's when the other stuff gets in the way that it all falls apart. He doesn't talk too much and we don't get a whole lot of one-liners. He's just a relentless murder machine, a whirling dervish of jiu-jitsu and gun kata and general badassery. It's a great part for him; his general blankness very much works in his favor.

I mean, it's a movie about a guy who goes into full-on vengeance mode over the death of his dog; can you imagine anyone other than Keanu playing this part?

The supporting cast is solid. Allen is sufficiently sniveling; he's exactly as enormous a d-bag as you'd expect from a puppy-killing car thief. Nyqvist could have gone full-on finger-steepling evil with this and sleepwalked to a paycheck, but he actually seems to have put in some effort. He perfectly captures the whole 'I know my son is a jackass, but he's my son, so' vibe. Willem Dafoe ('The Fault in Our Stars') is here in a couple of scenes; he doesn't get a lot to do other than stand around and look craggy. Dean Winters ('Don Peyote'), Ian McShane ('Hercules'), Adrienne Palicki ('G.I. Joe: Retaliation') and John Leguizamo ('Chef') also contribute to a surprisingly strong ensemble.

What really separates 'John Wick' from your standard shoot-em-up fare is the attention to detail. The characters are given just a touch more depth than you usually see. The action sequences are fast-paced, hyperkinetic tilt-a-whirls, yet are never difficult to follow. And there's more world-building than you normally see little touches that hint at a slightly skewed world existing just beneath the surface of our own.

Much of that comes from the film's directors. This movie marks both David Leitch's and Chad Stahelski's first time at the helm, but both are seasoned veterans of Hollywood from the stunt side of things. Both men have been doing stunt work and coordination for over two decades Stahelski was actually Reeves's double for a number of projects (including 'The Matrix'). That sensibility has informed the film's action sequences, creating a story that is told through that physicality as much as it is by dialogue.

Even without any real effort, 'John Wick' could have been a pretty good action movie. But thanks to the efforts of Reeves, Leitch, Stahelski and the rest, it's one of the best movies of its kind we've seen in 2014.

[4.5 out of 5]

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