John Wick, the Keanu Reeves vehicle opening today, probably has more in common with Carlos Saura’s dance films than with any other actioner currently at the multiplexes. The film is deliberately lacking in suspense. There’s no question as to whether the title character will triumph over the Russian crime family that ruined his life—Wick is presented as such an outstanding hit man that even other killers fear him. Rather, we’re invited to take pleasure in how he triumphs over them, which he does with grace and gusto. Most of the showdowns between Reeves and his enemies involve a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat, and the filmmakers present the fights like dance numbers. There isn’t much cutting during these scenes, so we get to appreciate the action choreography in real time. Moreover the camera often maintains enough of a distance from the performers so we can see their whole bodies.
I’ve got to tip my hat to Reeves. The actor, who turned 50 last month, has evidently applied himself to choreography with the discipline (if not necessarily the inherent ease) of a Jackie Chan or a Gene Kelly. He also acknowledges his limitations as a performer and constructs his screen presence accordingly. Rather than appeal to audience sympathy, Reeves plays up his blankness to tantalizing effect. Wick seems to be evaporating from sight whenever he isn’t fighting someone—as such, when the action scenes begin, they give the film a genuine surge of energy. Another striking thing about the movie is that, despite being a revenge thriller, it doesn’t go out of its way to appeal to vigilante fantasies. The plot is so elemental and the hero so hollow that one identifies most strongly with the stunt coordinators, whose brilliant work—satisfying entirely on its own terms—pushes John Wick surprisingly close to the realm of pure cinema.