It can be easy to forget, in this modern age of clashing CGI armies, zooming spaceships and high-flying superheroes, that at one point in history, the biggest action thrill in cinema was watching a guy with a gun and a damn good reason to use it.
John Wick is a reminder of precisely why that simple premise used to be - and in fact still is - so viscerally compelling.
Keanu Reeves steps onto the screen fully-formed as the titular John Wick a legendary assassin in a world where assassins are numerous enough to have their own private hotels and night clubs. He was the best, and when he got out, he thought he was moving on to a better life. But with the passing of his wife and a home invasion that ends in the death of the puppy that was her final gift to him, old doors once thought closed for good start to crack open.
And those doors lead to gunfights. Where lots of people get shot. Usually in the face.
There's a certain off-putting quality to Reeves' usual affect as an actor, particularly in action roles, that can come across as wooden or lacking in believable range, but serves perfectly in the right context. Here, he's absolutely convincing as a man who sacrificed large chunks of his humanity to become a killer, and finds an unexpected truth in the need to re-seal those emotions in order to be a weapon once again. In a genre full-to-bursting with memorable protagonists, Wick immediately makes his mark as a boogeyman (literally called "Baba Yaga" by the Russian mob) among other boogeymen, and he does this by playing cold and understated as often as possible.
It helps that Reeves has great physical characterization, able to sell both punishing blows to his body and a well-oiled precision to his movements in the film's action scenes. While many action movies indulge in over-the-top stunts of folks hurling themselves through the air while firing as many guns as possible at once, John Wick takes the opposite approach. Gun fights are economic, graceful affairs that are always widely-framed and steadily shot, not wild orgies of bullets, hyper-kinetic cuts, and explosions. Wick is careful, precise, and almost unhurried in the way he metes out death on his way to retribution, and the way the directors (former stunt coordinators themselves) meshes with Reeves' performance of most of his own stunt work creates a fresh feel for the combat that lines up nicely with the movie's balancing act between grounded grit and stylish exaggeration.
This "less is more" ethos even extends to the film's world-building. At 101 minutes, John Wick packs a lot of information on-screen, but never more than it absolutely needs to, and always in a way that feels organic and alluring, opting to show the unique elements in this world in action (police responses, gold coins as exclusive assassin currency, "dinner reservations" for body clean-up) rather than having characters monologue or discuss information they should already know just for the sake of the viewer. With all this detail in the periphery, existing in the shadows alongside the assassins themselves, the movie is far richer than if it devoted an extra half-hour to exposition.
This even spills over into the casting, with character actors like Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane telling you something about the men they're playing just because they're the ones in the role, and their alarmed reactions to John Wick's rampage tell you as much about the man's skill as an entire prequel film. You'll learn about how characters feel about each other, even how they regard entire generations of their profession, from the exchange of a few simple lines.
John Wick is the sort of pleasant surprise that almost feels like a gift, the sort of serious-faced junky action throwback about a man avenging his dog (there's even an unironic "It's personal" in this movie!) that would be easy for me to enjoy if it were merely competent, but actually opts to create a legitimately great entry in the genre. The film opts to dig deep instead of reaching out, lending an unexpected level or richness and meaningful texture to what could have been so much popcorn fluff, and in focusing with laser-precision on the basics, it creates something fairly extraordinary.
Long story short: this is a banner example of "less is more."