‘John Wick’: Gun fu gone wild

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In “Death Wish,” the seminal 1974 revenge porn classic, Charles Bronson portrayed a placid architect, who had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War. However, when thugs invade his home, then kill his wife and sexually assault his daughter, he is transformed into a homicidal vigilante. Back then, many, even including Brian Garfield, the author of the source novel, castigated the film as being excessively violent.

What would those critics make out of “John Wick”? This film offers the “Death Wish” revenge theme on a megadose of steroids. Here, the eponymous protagonist (Keanu Reaves) isn’t an erstwhile pacifist. No indeed-he’s a one-time hitman, who had retired in deference to the wishes of his beloved wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). So, John already has murder and mayhem in his background. All it takes is something to activate his quiescent skill set.

The studio’s promotional campaign advertised, “An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.” Okay-so excuse me for leaping to conclusions. However, I assumed that the “everything” in question would include the murder of our hero’s spouse.

This photo released by Lionsgate shows Keanu Reeves as John Wick in a scene from the film, "John Wick."  (AP Photo/Lionsgate, David Lee)

This photo released by Lionsgate shows Keanu Reeves as John Wick in a scene from the film, “John Wick.” (AP Photo/Lionsgate, David Lee)

Here is the salient irony in “John Wick.” An early scene depicts the rain-drenched funeral of John’s wife, Helen. However, Helen is not the victim of the hoodlums-she has succumbed to cancer. Her death is not the precipitous for John coming out of retirement.

After the funeral, John is cruising down the highway with his newly acquired beagle puppy, Daisy. He stops at a gas station to refuel his vintage ’69 Mustang. Concurrently, three young Russian males pull up at the gas station. The particularly cocky leader of the trio, Josef (Alfie Allen from “Game of Thrones”), covets John’s wheels. Seeking to acquire it, he asks, “How much?” John curtly responds, “It’s not for sale.”

However, Josef is undaunted. He wants that ’69 Mustang. Of course, he could simply steal it. But where’s the fun in that? Josef and his crew invade John’s home, beat him, then, just for good measure, kill his poor puppy. Then, they make off with John’s car.

Inexplicably, there seems to be no surveillance system on John’s home. Here is a guy who was immersed for years as an assassin for hire in the world of gangsters. Wouldn’t he have some sort of rudimentary surveillance system installed on his own residence? Even more incongruously, John seems to meekly allow the trio of Ruskies to beat him into submission. This is irreconcilable with the subsequent text of the film, which reveals that John is a lean, mean killing machine.

The theft of his car and the gratuitous murder of his puppy unleash the inner rage in John. By coincidence, it turns out that, before retirement, John worked as a contract killer for Josef’s father, Vigo Treason (Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), the head of the local Russian crime syndicate. So, Viggo is aware of just how lethal John is. He advises his son, Josef, of what a major mistake he has made in making an enemy out of John. Viggo recounts seeing John kill three adversaries in a bar fight, armed only with a pencil. As he puts it, “John isn’t the Boogeyman, he is the man you send to kill the Boogeyman!”

Without any substantive character development or dialogue, the laconic hero dispatches dozens of heavily armed Eastern European foes. John efficiently employs an amalgam of fisticuffs and gunplay to advantage. Major kudos to Reeves, who at 50, displays balletic grace throughout a series of ultraviolent montages.

Once upon a time, director, Chad Stahelski, worked as Reeves’ stunt double in such films as “Point Break” and “The Matrix.” Stahelski also filled in for Brandon Lee, when the actor tragically died before production of “The Crow” had concluded. Here, Stahelski and stunt guru, David Leitch, work together as a team, with the former taking the director’s title and the latter picking up a producer’s credit. Working in collaboration with Reeves, they produce an efficient action yarn. They manage to offset the manifest shortcomings in Derek Kolstad’s screenplay.

Interspersed throughout the film are appearances by a panoply of supporting actors, who enliven the proceedings. John Leguizamo is the operator of a chop shop, who refuses to provide new plates to Josef on his stolen car. Willem Dafoe and Adrienne Palicki are rival assassins, each of whom is hired by Viggo to kill John. David Patrick Kelly (“The Warriors”) is the head of a cleaning crew, hired by John to dispose of the first dozen corpses that he produces. Ian McCone (“Deadwood”) runs a deluxe hotel, which apparently caters exclusively to an upscale criminal clientele. Lance Reddick (“The Wire”) is the concierge at the hotel. However, the most delicious casting involves Dean Winters. He will be subliminally familiar to you, but not from any movie role. Winters portrays the Mayhem character in the commercials for Allstate Insurance.

Despite the brilliant stunt choreography, at a certain juncture, the virtually non-stop gun fu in “John Wick” becomes redundant and the carnage excessive.

**1/2 R (for strong and bloody violence throughout, language, and brief drug use) 100 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.

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