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Front Page - Friday, October 31, 2014

Wick-ed action

The Critic's Corner

David Laprad

John Wick” is the not so heart-warming story of a man and his dog.

The beagle arrives via delivery service one evening and darts out of his pet carrier, all ears, paws, and puppy dog eyes. Wick, who lives alone, reads a card that came with the dog and cries. He and the beagle bond over the next few days.

One afternoon, John is out driving in his vintage ‘69 Mustang when he pulls into a gas station. While fueling up, he encounters a trio of Russian gang members. Their leader, Losef, offers to buy the car, but Wick, looking and sounding like Keanu Reeves, tells him it’s not for sale.

That night, the threesome breaks into Wick’s house, beat him senseless, kill his dog, and steal the car.

In the history of bad ideas, that would rank as one of the worst. The beagle was no ordinary dog; rather, John’s wife, who recently passed away after a long illness, gave it to him to help him cope with her death. Worse, Wick is no common widower; instead, he’s a former mob assassin. He’s no everyday assassin, either, but a killer known as “the Boogeyman.” He earned this nickname not for being as bad as the Boogeyman, but for being bad enough to kill the Boogeyman.

Losef and his boys take the car to a chop shop, but when the owner of the shop learns it belongs to Wick, he strikes Losef and tells him to take the vehicle and leave. Losef’s father, Viggo, calls the man, enraged. “Why did you hit my son?” he asks. “Because the owner of the car is John Wick,” he replies, looking and sounding like John Leguizamo.

“Oh,” Viggo says.

You have to hear the actor say that one word to understand how good this movie is. Viggo sounds like a king who’s been told Death has been unleashed on his kingdom. The acting in “John Wick” is spot on. So is the dialogue. It must have taken courage for writer Derek Kolstad to resist the impulse to compose a monologue exposing Viggo’s fear and instead trust the actor to deliver everything that needs to be communicated in that single, “Oh.”

Over the next 90 minutes, the audience comes to understand why Viggo was rendered all but speechless: Wick is a killing machine. The film is packed with energetic battles in which he racks up a higher body count than all of the “Friday the 13th” films combined. Reeves must have trained relentlessly for these scenes, which feature elaborate gunplay and fight choreography, and are chock full of crowd-pleasing moves. I love, love, love how co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski steady the camera and follow Reeves without cutting away. The long shots are far more exciting to watch than a movie in which the director whips the camera around in a frenzy and cuts to a different shot every other second. The action in “Wick” is so well staged, it’s like watching a ballet in which Death himself actually has been unleashed.

Fortunately, the directors paid just as much attention to the acting. Reeves has taken a lot of hits for being stiff – and rightfully so – but here, he proves he has the chops to carry not only a scene but the entire film. Wick is a complex character – although he can kill “three men with a pencil,” as Viggo tells Losef in an early scene, he also respects life, and will protect the innocent. Reeves brings this man to life with the kind of gravitas Harrison Ford brought to Indiana Jones, or Sean Connery brought to James Bond. The scene in which he says, “People have been asking me if I’m back, and I’m thinking, yeah, I’m back,” is probably his best as an actor.

The actors with smaller roles make the most of their screen time, too, including Willem Dafoe as a fellow assassin who might or might not be out to kill Wick, and Ian McShane as Winston, the owner of a hotel where criminals may meet but cannot harm one another. Adrianne Palicki is memorable as a female assassin who tries to end Wick’s campaign, and I even liked David Patrick Kelly’s brief appearances as Charlie the Cleaner. (Any guesses on what he does for a living?) “John Wick” is full of small pleasures.

If “John Wick” has a failing, it’s that it wants to strike a film noir tone similar to “Sin City” but doesn’t follow through. The noirish moments clash with the straightforward nature of the rest of the movie.

As stories about a boy and his dog go, John Wick is one of the best. But it’s more than a heartbreaking tale about a man and his pup; it’s also a great action film and an excellent showcase for Reeves. If you don’t like violence, avoid it; other than that, see it while it’s in theaters.

Three stars out of four. Rated R for strong and bloody violence, language, and brief drug use. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Since seeing “John Wick,” he’s been practicing dying violently in the hopes of landing a bit part in the sequel. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.