John Wick solidified Keanu Reeves as one of the greatest action stars of all time
by Tom Breihan
In the entire history of American action cinema, there are very, very few movies that take their fight scenes as seriously as John Wick does. Some of the action set pieces in John Wick—the home invasion, the one-man nightclub siege—are straight-up masterpieces, and the movie never lingers long between these exquisitely crafted depictions of mayhem. But my favorite scene in the movie isn’t a fight. It’s the part where Viggo, the movie’s lead Russian gangster, has to tell his son just how badly he’d fucked up. Viggo’s boy, Iosef, has broken into the home of a “fucking nobody.” He’s killed the man’s dog, stolen his car, and left him unconscious. Viggo, played by the late Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, doesn’t mind any of this. He just minds that Iosef did all this to the wrong guy.
Carefully and patiently, Viggo tells Iosef that he and his associates used to call John Wick, that nobody, baba yaga—the bogeyman. And then he continues, “John wasn’t exactly the bogeyman.” Dramatic pause. “He was the one you send to kill the fucking bogeyman.” A moment later, as that sinks in: “I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil. A fucking. Pencil.”
That scene comes before any of the movie’s fights, and it tells us a whole lot of things we need to know. It tells us that Wick is an absolute avenging angel of death, of course, and it gives us context for the life that he left behind when he fell in love and got married. But that scene also tells us what kind of movie we’re watching. It’s a movie that takes place in its own universe, that leaves behind any notion of realism or naturalism. It tells us that we are watching myths and archetypes, that the movie is going to be a sort of tone-poem homage to history’s great bleak, existentialist action movies. It tells us that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch know their Melville and their Woo. The first time I watched John Wick, I spent that entire scene cackling with glee. That scene promised a lot, and the movie paid off on it.
I have to imagine that the person who greenlit John Wick thought he’d be getting another Taken clone; 2014 was the era of the Taken clone. A few years earlier, Liam Neeson had revitalized his career by playing a leathery, regretful death-dealer in a cheap, unpretentious B-movie, and other aging movie stars were trying to do the same with theirs. Denzel Washington made The Equalizer. Sean Penn made The Gunman. John Wick, originally titled Scorn, could’ve turned out to be one of those.
Instead, John Wick turned out to be a whole new mold: a sleek, stylish, and deeply silly studio B-movie that takes place in its own fully realized world. And after years of choppy, illegible Hollywood action scenes, it revived the visceral beauty of a well-shot, well-choreographed fight, succeeding in making Keanu Reeves look like an absolutely unstoppable killing machine. These days, people aren’t making their own Taken knockoffs anymore. They’re more likely to make John Wick clones, like Ben Affleck in The Accountant, say, or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. That’s a good thing. The John Wick clones have been way better than the Taken clones.
In some ways, John Wick was a very familiar movie. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of quiet, soulful, and well-dressed hitmen pulled back into the killing game by tragedy, forced to eliminate their old bosses. We’ve seen a lot of broken loners going on quests of revenge after seeing their families die. We’ve seen badasses so cold that they take out entire armies of anonymous cannon-fodder types. We’ve seen underworld stories in which the police barely even seem to exist. John Wick is, in a lot of ways, a traditional action movie, one that works very much within the rules and structures of the genre.
But in other ways, John Wick is a strange statement of a movie—one that takes all those tropes and makes them as weird and otherworldly as possible. For one thing, when John Wick goes to war with the Russian mob of New York, he’s not avenging any actual people. Instead, he’s avenging the death of a dog, an adorable puppy gifted to him by his dead wife. Iosef insists, over and over, that it was just a dog, as if this is going to help him in any way. It’s a beautiful little subversion of an old revenge-movie trope. People hate seeing dogs die in movies, so we’re spared the usual Death Wish-style scene of rape and murder. Even the dog dies offscreen. Instead, we get to skip straight to the revenge. And the movie knows it’s absurd for Wick to be killing dozens of people to avenge a dog that he’d only had for, what, a day? But it works on a couple of levels. At one point, Wick says that the dog represented all the hope he had left in the world, telling us that that’s what sent him off on that killing spree. So it’s an effective story device. But it’s also a grand cosmic joke. Because after all, it was just a fucking dog.
Taking this simple and unreal pretense as its starting point, the movie builds an entire world. This is a universe full of hitmen. There are so many, in fact, that they have their own hotel, a place where any actual killing is expressly forbidden. That’s one of the rules of this hitman world that everyone understands. Another is that everyone is supposed to pay for stuff in gold coins. Even the police seem to know what’s going on. At one point, a cop comes to Wick’s door and sees a body lying on the floor behind him. His response: “You, uh, working again?” Wick: “No, just sorting some stuff out.” That’s good enough for the cop, who backs right out. John Wick: Chapter Two, the movie’s 2017 sequel, builds on all of this and turns it into something even more gloriously alien. But it’s all there in the first movie—a violent hidden world, right under our noses.
A year before starring in John Wick, Keanu Reeves went to Hong Kong and China to make his directorial debut. Man Of Tai Chi isn’t what you might expect from the moment that an aging movie star steps behind the camera. Instead, it’s a great little underground-fighting movie, one made with a slightly incoherent plot and a great respect for fight choreography. The movie almost makes more sense as a collection of fight scenes than as a traditional narrative. It’s mostly in Chinese, but Reeves himself plays the villain, a glowering evil American billionaire who makes people fight to the death. And he made the whole thing as a vehicle for Tiger Chen, a Chinese martial artist who’d been one of the fight choreographers for The Matrix.
Man Of Tai Chi was, for me, the moment that Reeves became an all-time elite action star. He’d already had a surprising number of classic action movies on his résumé: Point Break, Speed, the Matrix movies. He’d done many of his own stunts in Speed and trained hard in wire-fu for The Matrix. But I’d always thought of him as an actor who sometimes did action movies, not as a straight-up action star. Man Of Tai Chi revealed Reeves to be something else: someone so in love with the genre that he’d make a labor of love like that. And John Wick is the moment he solidified his spot in the history of the genre. Keanu Reeves is, quite simply, one of the greatest action stars of all time. He might be the single greatest, no qualifiers necessary.
Think about it: Reeves was 50 when John Wick came out, and he still went out of his way to make the movie as hard and physical as possible. He recruited his Matrix stunt doubles Stahelski and Leitch to direct the movie even though they’d never directed a movie before. (Reeves’ devotion to the Matrix stunt team is, to my mind, one of the most endearing things about him.) He threw himself into training, learning styles of martial arts that he’d never attempted. And he pulled off these incredible fight scenes—scenes that mix gunplay with hand-to-hand grappling in believable ways, scenes in which he has to pull off these great stunts without the benefit of quick-cutting. He even did a fair amount of his stunt-driving. And he put in an affecting, grounded performance on top of all of that, bringing this absurdist world to life with the sheer weight of his facial expressions and body language. And he delivers his best badass lines with absolute panache and confidence. (Viggo: “They know you’re coming.” Wick: “Of course. But it won’t matter.”)
There’s a ruthless efficiency to the way Reeves moves in the movie. The way he kills people tells more of a story than the actual story does. He’ll punch someone, then shoot him, then punch him again. Sometimes, he’ll take a bad guy down in a leglock, holding him immobile while he shoots a couple of other bad guys, and then shoot the original bad guy while that guy is lying helpless on the floor. A scene like that one-man nightclub invasion is put together with absolute precision, ratcheting things up gradually until it becomes something insane and surreal. It’s beautifully lit and shot and edited, like Drive or something, but all of that atmosphere serves to highlight the action. There’s a scene near the end where Viggo, on the way to his final showdown with Wick, laughs maniacally. It’s not because he thinks he’s going to win. He knows he’s about to die. He’s just having so much fun watching Wick work. We, the audience, knows how he feels.
John Wick made an impact. It made money and earned critical raves, something that I don’t think anyone expected of it. It spawned a whole universe‚ two movies, with another on the way, and a spin-off TV series called The Continental reportedly in the works. One of its directors went off to make Atomic Blonde, an instant-classic action movie in its own right if only for that incredible single-take apartment-building fight. John Wick spawned imitators. But more to the point, it proved that an American studio B-movie could be truly great, that it could compete with anything coming out of South Korea or Thailand or Indonesia. It proved that we don’t have to settle for bullshit. It raised the stakes. People keep asking if American action movies are back, and I hadn’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinking they’re back.