I've been making the case for many years to anyone who would listen (no one would listen) that Keanu Reeves is one of our great modern action stars. I make this argument because a) I have always been a fan of Keanu Reeves and b) he has been the lead in three of the best action movies of the last 25 years, possibly ever: The Matrix, Speed and Point Break. There are those that might argue that it's a coincidence, or that Reeves is not the reason those movies work -- that he happened to star in great action movies, not that the action movies were great as a result of his participation. Hopefully those doubters were silenced when Keanu made his directing debut last year with Man of Tai Chi, a wonderful and loving tribute to martial arts movies that's also a completely kickass action movie. Reeves proved that he knows his shit -- that he doesn't just love action films, but that he can speak the language (the fight scenes in that movie are better directed than most of what comes out of Hollywood these days). I was right. Keanu is the real fucking deal.
To prove me right, he has now made John Wick, directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch -- both former stunt men and fight coordinators (Stahelski was the martial arts coordinator and Keanu's stunt double on the Matrix sequels; Leitch has performed stunts on a number of Wachowski productions) making their feature directing debut. Like stuntmen-turned-directors David R. Ellis (RIP) and Craig R. Baxley before them, Stahelski and Leitch know their way around a fight scene. The result is some fantastic, no-frills action -- clear purpose, well-shot, badass.
Big mistake. Huge.
It turns out that John Wick is a former assassin/hitman who is, as described by every other character in the movie, the last person in the world you want to fuck with. He's not the boogeyman; he's the guy you send to kill the boogeyman. The incident with the dog is all it takes to put Wick back in action, leading him to an upscale hotel that houses all the hit men in New York as he goes on a mission of revenge to burn down every gangster and thug working for Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), head of the Russian crime family and father of the asshole punk that killed the dog.
There are already jokes about John Wick online that it's the movie in which Keanu Reeves shoots all of the heads. It's true. He shoots a lot of people in the head. And I love it -- not only because I'm a fan of a well-executed head shot, but because it says everything about John Wick as a character. He is machine; a shark. The reason he's the best is because he's so goddamn efficient, knowing that it's pointless to fire three bullets when you can fire just one and get the job done. Reeves' physicality in the movie reminded me a lot of Tom Cruise in Collateral -- the moves are precise and calculated, always at the ready and as minimalistic as possible. You believe that he can take out as many people as he does, and it's one of those rare cases in which a character is really built up as being the ultimate badass and then lives up to the expectations.
My favorite thing about John Wick -- besides all of the kickass action and Reeves' leading man turn -- is that it sets up its own underground universe populated by criminals and hit men but doesn't feel the need to explain every aspect of it. There are "cleaners" who come and get rid of bodies -- like, lots of bodies. There is a hotel at which all the killers stay, and that hotel has very specific rules about where and when business can be conducted. There are special gold coins that can be earned and used as currency which appear to be much more valuable than regular money. John Wick could have just been a straightforward revenge movie and a terrific one at that (I love a good revenge movie), but the fact that it adds a whole layer about an underground society just makes it that much more interesting. It's some of the best stuff in the film.
The Raid 2 was released, I don't see how that's possible. That shouldn't take anything away from its excellence (very few movies can be The Raid 2). It's a stylish, thrilling, violent and well-drawn action film that bothers to do some world-building and offers yet another opportunity for Keanu Reeves to demonstrate just how good he is within the genre. Yes, he's a bit of a blank. That is a conscious choice. John Wick is a guy who exists under the radar, who keeps everything under the surface. Watching him slowly come alive as he gets back to shooting heads is just one of the movie's many pleasures, and by the time he gets to the soon-to-be iconic "I'm thinking I'm back," I wanted to stand up and cheer.
John Wick is that kind of movie.
Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!