Presumably there's a reason why we're so fascinated by hitmen in popular culture—possibly something to do with their uncomplicated codes, and their brutal efficiency, and their roles as godlike arbiters in the eternal gamble of life versus death. There are two archetypes of hitmen, according to Telegraph film critic Anne Billson: the infallible, superheroic dispenser of doom (The Terminator, No Country for Old Men, Collateral), and the humanized, accessible, almost lovable killers (Pulp Fiction, Road to Perdition, The Professional).
John Wick, played with quiet, slow-burning grace by Keanu Reeves in what's being billed as a comeback for the 50-year-old actor, is both. At the beginning of the film he seems like any Wall Street banker or startup whiz who has cashed out early to enjoy life with his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan, seen only in flashbacks and blurry iPhone clips). That’s until Helen dies of a serious but unspecified illness, leaving Wick all alone in his sleek, monochrome mansion as a living, breathing, sobbing manifestation of Sad Keanu.
In one of the most emotionally manipulative plot devices ever seen on film, the doorbell rings, and he takes delivery of a puppy, a canis ex machina, ordered by Helen before she died to give Wick something to love. The bond is instantaneous: The adorable dog and the handsome man eat cereal together, and snuggle up in bed, and drive around in a killer 1969 Mustang—sometimes breaking into what looks like an airport to do doughnuts and handbrake turns in front of gas tankers—and for a fleeting moment it seems like the movie might have the makings of an existential buddy comedy. Only a thug, Iosef (Alfie Allen), who's eyed Wick's car in a gas station, breaks into his house with a handful of friends late at night, beats up Wick, steals the car, and kills the puppy.
This is 2014 in immature, animal-worshiping, Cute Emergency-retweeting America. You come at a puppy, you best not miss its owner, whose mystique as one of the most ruthless killers ever to wear Kevlar is quickly established in the following exchange between the owner of a chop shop (John Leguizamo) and Iosef's father, Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist):
Viggo: I heard you struck my son. May I ask why?
Aureilo: Because he stole John Wick's car and killed his dog.
Iosef doesn't just kill John Wick's dog, as Wick expresses in possibly the fiercest monologue Reeves has ever delivered: He kills his hope, and in doing so, unleashes the full fury of a now footloose and fancy-free angel of death. John Wick kills, by my count, 78 people in the movie's 93 minutes, and he doesn't just kill them, he toys with them first like a cat with a mouse, delivering a stray bullet in the shoulder or a kick to the kneecap before offing his targets with two shots to the head, assassination-style. The movie's tagline is "Don't Set Him Off," but it really should be "This Idiot Killed My Puppy and Now Everyone Must Die."
If a movie about a man who kills everyone he sees because his dog dies sounds maybe a trifle flimsy, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski compensate by creating an elaborate and intriguing universe for Wick—one in which the world's hitmen stay at the same New York City establishment, the Continental. (It's a bit like the Yale Club, only for professional killers.) Nyqvist's Viggo is an old-fashioned, DC-type villain who hoards cash and dirt on all the city's notable figures in his safe house inside a church, and drinks 18-year-old Glenlivet out of a brandy snifter (in case there were any doubt that he’s truly a monster). Wick tracks down Iosef with the help of the Continental's boss (Ian McShane, oozing bonhomie and menace in equal parts), and pays for everything with a stash of gold coins recently liberated from underneath the cement in his garage.
John Wick, in fact, feels so well-established as a character that it's hard to believe this is his debut; that he hasn't been killing people on-screen with poised abandon for decades. Reeves's ability to hint at multitudes while his features remain relatively blank hasn't lessened since the Matrix trilogy, and although now firmly ensconced in middle age, he looks about a decade younger, both in appearance, and in the way he manipulates his way through a kind of weaponized kung fu. He's supported by a broad range of brilliant and underused actors including Willem Dafoe as a mysterious friend, McShane Nyqvist—apparently channeling a Slavic interpretation of the most interesting man in the world—and The Wire alums Lance Reddick (as a hotel manager with an improbable African accent) and Clarke Peters (as a hitman who's unlucky enough to be in the room next door to Wick).
The cinematography (by Jonathan Sela) is bleak and breathtaking at the same time, with grey filters dulling Reeves's already ashen face, and aerial shots offering extended views of the tops of skyscrapers, as if the audience, too, were scanning the city for enemies. Stahelski and Leitch, both former stunt men, unsurprisingly tackle action sequences with glee (the array of death can be dizzying), but the quieter scenes are more sophisticated, incorporating a sense of fantasy and visual splendor that almost makes the wafer-thin plot feel fresh. This is a character who kills out of intuition rather than intellect; who takes lives out of a sense of karmic inevitability after a life is taken from him. It's ethically dubious, sure, but hitmen have never cared about ethics, which is exactly why we love them.