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"JOHN WICK"
(2014) (Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action: After Russian thugs kill his puppy and steal his car, a retired assassin returns to his former killing ways as he sets out to get revenge on those who wronged him.
PLOT:
At one time, John Wick (KEANU REEVES) was a highly effective and feared assassin, but he then retired from that life to lead a regular one with his wife in New Jersey. After she gets sick and dies from an illness, all he has left of her is a puppy she sent to him as her final gift. His love for the dog is short-lived, however, when a Russian mobster's son, Iosef (ALFIE ALLEN), arrives at John's home with two thugs to steal his car. Along with doing that and beating him up, they also kill the puppy.

When Iosef's father, Viggo Tarasov (MICHAEL NYQVIST), hears of this, he's fully aware of what his son has unleashed. When a number of hitmen end up dead while trying to contain the former killer, Viggo puts out a $2 million contract on Wick, and hires the killer's long-time associate, Marcus (WILLEM DAFOE), to do the job. But the hit is open to all, thus meaning the alluring but deadly assassin Ms. Perkins (ADRIANNE PALICKI) also wants in on the action. All John wants is revenge on Iosef and his thugs, and the body count quickly escalates as he sets out to find and kill those responsible.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I have nothing against canines and have plenty of friends with various breeds of pooches. I've simply always been a cat person, and thus don't know all of the exact details about caring for dogs. I guess at some point I'll need to figure out what happens when you awaken one from its slumber, although I don't know if that pertains only to deep sleep or includes, pardon the pun, cat naps and such. Whatever the degree of nod time, apparently getting them up results in something bad enough to warrant the old saying about letting sleeping dogs lie.

The same holds true for giants (or so I've heard) and babies (ask any sleep-deprived parent). Apparently, it's also valid for highly trained government black ops types, assassins and other highly efficient killers, although that has less to do with nap and bedtime than with awakening their lethal instincts. That's clearly on display in "John Wick," a hard-hitting and gun happy shoot 'em up action flick that's decent when it's in full kinetic mode, but far less successful when the words rather than fists and bullets are flying.

As written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski, the reawakening tale is a familiar one in terms of the overriding storyline. Keanu Reeves stars as the title character who we first see crash his SUV into a concrete wall and then stumble out, fairly bloodied. He then views a lovely woman on his cell phone and we quickly rewind to an even quicker montage of him with his wife, her collapsing, being in the hospital, and then her funeral. Beyond the default nature of that setup, we're not given a lot of time to feel for the guy since we barely know him.

The filmmakers remedy that by inserting an unbelievably cute puppy into the mix, a final goodbye gift from the late wife. Man and dog bond instantly, but then the bad guys (including Alfie Allen playing a Russian mobster's adult son) show up, intent on stealing John's 1969 Mustang after he turns down an initial purchase offer. In the midst of stealing that car and beating John to a pulp, they also kill his puppy. I understand the plot mechanics for that moment of violence, but a simple dog-napping would have sufficed and thus given the title character the needed motivation to clean up the mess.

The thug's mobster boss father (Michael Nyqvist) clearly is familiar with the old "let sleeping dogs lie" mantra, and when he's informed of what his son has done, he replies with a half-dejected, half-fearful "Oh..." and later informs his offspring that John Wick isn't the boogeyman himself. Instead, he's the one you send in to kill the boogeyman, and thus he and we know the body count is about to commence and quickly add up.

And that's really it for the storyline. Sure, some assassins (Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are thrown into the mix who hope to collect the mobster's $2 million bounty on the killer's head, but it's really about watching Wick dispatching the bad guys in cool action scenes and leaving a wake of said bodies until he gets his revenge. I'll admit that the action scenes are done fairly well, both from the standpoint of the choreography (and not being edited to death like some such genre pics) and Reeves handling the physical requirements of such stunt work.

Like many a middle-aged actor nowadays (think Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington and so on), the 50-year-old (perhaps with some help from a stunt body double) credibly portrays such a nimble and violently swift man who gets the job done. And the filmmakers insert some decent moments of comic relief and humor into the proceedings, mainly from reactions of others who realize that Wick has returned and is now back into the killing business.

Sadly, that tone isn't maintained throughout, thus robbing the film and our experience of it from fully existing in the guilty pleasure realm of movie-watching. It doesn't help that the villains are all of the one-note variety, the rest of the storyline is AWOL and offers nary a surprise, or that the ending contains the far overused "let's drop our guns and fight with our fists" conclusion between the hero and villain.

If anything, the film could have used more of the pooch and its near overwhelming cuteness. Perhaps the filmmakers should have followed the new saying of "Let cute dogs live" and the pic could have had a smile on your face conclusion. Actions fans might have that anyway, but no degree of decently staged fight and shooting scenes can cover what's otherwise a mediocre to subpar genre pic.

With a better or at least more imaginative script, this could have possibly joined the ranks of Reeves' better action flicks, such as "Speed," although it would have needed more than a cute dog to match the mind-bending brilliance of the original "The Matrix." "John Wick" doesn't nearly try to reach such levels and thus comes off as only an okay entry in the genre. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 21, 2014 / Posted October 24, 2014


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