After watching the trailer for Keanu Reeves’ newest film my initial reaction was casual annoyance. I have never been a fan of solo movies starring over-the-hill leads struggling to regain some public-esteem. Sylvester Stallone is the poster-boy for this movement and Keanu Reeves certainly is in the market for some face-saving after 47 Ronin flopped. But John Wick isn’t Rocky Balboa nor is it the usual “reluctant-but-surprisingly-deadly-assassin” movie. Reeves’ newest outing surpassed the low bar of expectations established by Taken, The Equalizer, and A Walk Among The Tombstones, by embracing the stereotypes and tropes of the genre it represents. In many ways it succeeds exactly where Only God Forgives failed. Indulging in overly-dramatic monologues, death-stares, and ridiculous action sequences, John Wick manages to yield a sum greater than its parts.
What is especially enjoyable is that Keanu Reeves does find himself thoroughly outclassed at times. Watching him be thrown around and knocked-out satisfies my internal bullshit meter which goes off everytime Bruce Willis leaps out of an exploding helicopter or Sylvester Stallone punches a crocodile in the face. Here, Reeves is an excellent marksman and hand-to-hand fighter but is not invincible and the action is relatively realistic (the key work here is relatively. As in relative to other films, not neccesarily real life). I could believe that Reeves is an ex-assassin coming out of retirement. An assassin that was once so deadly that the Russian mob nicknamed him the Boogeyman.
The underworld established in John Wick might be the most interesting element in the film. Complete with its own currency, an safe-zone hotel, and established professional services like body disposal and assassins-for-hire, the movie takes the time needed to give its criminals a playground in which they can kill each other. This also allows a cast of characters to be incorporated including Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Lance Reddick, John Lequizamo, and Dean Winters. The bantering between Nyqvist playing the Russian crime boss and Winters as his second-in-command provide much of the film’s comedic relief as Winters constantly asks his Russian boss to repeat himself in English.
Now, before my praise betrays me, I must say that John Wick, while certainly enjoyable while viewing, is not a tremendous film. I am still not sold on the ability of Reeves to carry a film. Approaching Keanu Reeves’ acting is similar to how Reeves approaches the puppy in the movie. Sure it looks great. A nd you know you are supposed to like it because you’ve seen cute puppies just like you’ve seen The Matrix, and Speed. But you’ve also seen Johnny Mnemonic and The Day the Earth Stood Still and the puppy just sits there crying and occasionally pees on the carpet. You don’t know what to do with it so like Reeves in the film, you just stare down at the dog with a dumbfounded look and murmur “What?” The question “Is Keanu Reeves a good actor” is not as unsolvable as “Nicholas Cage, good or bad?” The answer is probably no. But I’m no more qualified to answer that question than John Wick is to raise that puppy.
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John Wick continues the consistent redressing of a tired genre and stars an increasingly tiring actor. The trailer for Keanu Reeves’ newest film opens with a puppy licking Keanu awake. What follows is three minutes of explosions, gag-inducing one-liners, and Keanu Reeves in his unenviable element of deadpan deliveries. Overused, stock plot points are spoon-fed to us (“That dog was the last gift of my dying wife.” Cue kiss on the forehead in a hospital bed) and pieced together haphazardly like an inpatient child tackling his first jigsaw puzzle. With The Equalizer released a few weeks ago it hasn’t even been that long since a reluctant-but-surprisingly-deadly-assassin movie debuted. At this point, Keanu needs a career bump more than The Equalizer‘s Denzel Washington. Part of me still roots for the actor. He has plenty of good credits under his belt with just as many flops. And I can’t decide if he is a terrible actor or a so-so actor with minimal range. It’s not surprising that his next move after 47 Ronin would be a safe action movie with minimal acting required. But after all the flops and awkwardness, I wish Keanu would have stayed asleep.