Most people, if you gave them ten or fifteen million dollars for a one-off job, might very well give serious thought to never working again. Movie stars, as a general rule, are a breed apart, and this seems to apply in this area as well – having been given a truck full of cash for a job, they generally go straight on to get another truck full of cash for another high-profile job. It must just be because they love their work so much.
There are always a few exceptions, of course, people who are massively prominent for a bit and then apparently stop working, at least at the top end of the industry. Generally these are people who become so closely associated with a particular character that it may just be they can’t get interesting parts in other films. I’m thinking of the likes of Elijah Wood, and, yes, Mark Hamill, who have both opted for lower-profile roles and TV work as the basis of their post-trilogy careers. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who’s likewise seemed like only an occasional screen presence since the end of the Matrix project, and then in some slightly questionable films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin).
Still, in front of the other day’s Vin Diesel crapfest, there were a bunch of trailers for other impending action movies, and one of them was headlined by Keanu, which was a pleasant surprise. The film in question is John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick didn’t get much of a release in the respectable cinemas of Oxford, which I suspect is the main reason I didn’t go and see it, but my landlady turned out to have the DVD on her bookcase (rather to both our surprise). The ‘decent action movie’ itch I’d been feeling had obviously not been scratched by the xXx sequel, so I thought I’d check it out.
The film is directed by Chad Stahelski (and, secretly, David Leitch). Keanu plays the eponymous John Wick (seems to me like he should be Jon Wick, given his intimates call him Jonathan, but whatever), a New Jersey dude struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife from an unspecified medical condition. This seems to have been a bit of a shock, but also not entirely unexpected, as Mrs Wick has arranged for her husband to be delivered a cute little puppy as a sort of bereavement counselling aid.
Wick is out with the puppy one day when his beautiful muscle car attracts the attention of some Russian Mafia low-lives led by Iosef (Alfie Allen, whom I can’t look at without remembering the song his sister wrote about him). He refuses to sell it to them, so – being Russian Mafia low-lives – they break into his house, beat him up, steal his car keys, and – cover granny’s eyes – kill the puppy.
Naturally, they have made an extremely serious mistake: the chop shop boss they take the car to refuses to touch it, knowing the baleful reputation of its owner. Iosef’s crime boss dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) explains it very carefully, once informed of what’s gone down: five years previously, John Wick was the baddest-assed hitman in New York City, before retiring to live a less blood-splattered life with his lovely bride. With Mrs Wick off the scene, stealing his car and killing his pet dog is probably going to provoke a response…
And so it proves, with Wick leaving a trail of slaughter and property damage in his wake as he attempts to run Iosef to ground. More for the look of the thing than out of any real paternal affection, one suspects, Viggo puts a huge bounty on Wick’s head in an attempt to save his son’s life, and soon a number of other assassins (most prominently Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are taking an interest in proceedings…
You know, on one level you have to hand it to the writers of John Wick: amongst the unwritten rules of mainstream cinema, perhaps even part of the unspoken contract between film-makers and audience, is the understanding that small children are not going to be gratuitously tortured even by implication, that old people are not going to have graphic nude scenes, and that small cute animals are effectively immortal. The whole dead dog bit seems intended to provoke a ‘they didn’t just…?’ response from the casual viewer as much as provide motivation for Keanu’s protagonist.
It’s an interesting approach but one which inevitably tips the film slightly towards bathos, as Reeves embarks on a killing spree with a body-count heading towards three figures, all in memory of his puppy. On the other hand, it does make the storyline somewhat distinctive, because apart from the ex-canine this is an extremely back-to-basics action thriller, dealing primarily in types rather than actual characters. You could swap Reeves out and replace him with Jason Statham or even Arnie or Stallone and it would not materially change the story at all.
Stylistically, however – well, Keanu Reeves does bring something all his own to this kind of role, namely that unique, rather odd presence of his. He does have charisma, and there is a definite intensity to his performance, but at the same time he’s… absent. Not quite a cipher, but curiously inert, cryptic, most of the time. (Am I just trying to find a pretentious way to excuse someone regularly accused of being one of the worst actors in cinema history? Hmmm.)
This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the performances do the job required of them, and the numerous action sequences are neatly choreographed and shot. The look of the thing is distinctively stylish too. We are very much in the realm of the action movie as Theatre of the Absurd here, of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The film has some wit and invention, too, positing the existence of a secret hotel just for assassins in the middle of New York, with all necessary services available. (One exchange has a blood-drenched Wick returning to the hotel – ‘How good is your laundry?’ he enquires. ‘I’m sorry to say that nobody’s that good, sir,’ comes the reply.)
John Wick is never less than competent in any department, and does have many fun moments in it, but it doesn’t really excel or innovate enough to really qualify as a great movie. It’s entertaining but in the end a little disposable – still, it’s Keanu’s best vehicle for a while, and perhaps we can hope that the sequel will have the confidence to dream a little bigger and bolder.