Keanu Reeves is the poster boy for John Wick but not this hyper-violent movie's niftiest bit of casting. That would be hiring an actor named Dean Winters for a thankless role as the bad guy's flunky.
You may not know Winters' name but his face is familiar, playing "Mayhem" in a series of insurance commercials, creating hazardous situations that Allstate is glad to cover. Winters is practically product placement in John Wick, a movie in which tension dwindles as the body count and property damage escalates. It is precisely the sort of movie you'd expect a kickboxing stunt man to choose for his directing debut. Nobody is in good hands here.
Reeves plays the title role, a largely silent and always deadly professional killer who quit the business to get married. Then she died of natural causes, making her the movie's most fortunate corpse. But she arranged post-burial delivery of a beagle puppy to keep John company. The adorable dog and a roaring muscle car are all John needs, and what he'll cruelly lose for a reason to go ballistic again.
As usual these days, a Russian mob is to blame, specifically the indulgent son (Alfie Allen) of a kingpin (Michael Nyqvist) who once saw John kill three men with a pencil. Director Chad Stahelski — Reeves' stunt double for Point Break and The Matrix — aims only for a kinetic revenge yarn with wrinkles drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs might appreciate, like martial arts moves at point blank bullet range; what he'd call gun fu. There's also car fu, knife fu and even beagle fu but the less said about that, the better.
Yet there's also a trashy elegance to John Wick that can be engaging, a lurid neon glow matching the neo-Giorgio Moroder synth-rock musical score. John is a role making decent use of Reeves' acting limitations; what typically seems like disinterest can be written off as cold-blooded detachment. There's also freshness in the way screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands the danger for John, in a New York hotel catering exclusively to stylish killers like him. And any movie with Willem Dafoe skulking in the background has something going for it.
John Wick also offers opportunities for drinking games, like tipping a glass when pink mist sprays from a villain's skull, or whenever someone spits out the hero's full name as if it's "Johnwick." If you prefer meta cues, drink whenever anyone on screen punctuates a sentence by chugging booze. Or just drink whenever "Mayhem" shows up in Stahelski's movie, which in lower-case terms is all the time.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.