You hear that Keanu Reeves is starring in “John Wick” as a retired hit man dragged back into the trade, and you’re pretty sure you know what to expect: standard revenge fantasy tweaked with the Asian-influenced fighting style that seems to lure Reeves like a “bring it on” gesture. (See not just “The Matrix,” but also Reeves’s recent “47 Ronin” and “Man of Tai Chi.”) We do get this from the actor and Chad Stahelski, his onetime stunt double turned director, and it’s genre action that’s brutally riveting. But we also get a great, unadvertised tour through a criminal shadow world that’s got its own hint of neo-trippiness. Who knew that there are boutique hotels catering to the discriminating assassin?
Life had been good for Wick, but not anymore. He was enjoying a luxe post-mob existence with his wife (Bridget Moynahan) when she got sick and died. In an almost dementedly aching scene, a courier delivers him a puppy that Mrs. Wick wanted him to have after she was gone. Then comes a fateful encounter at a gas station with young Russian punk Iosef (Alfie Allen, “Game of Thrones”). The kid is irked when Wick refuses to sell him his vintage Mustang, so he stages a vicious home invasion, steals the car, and — worst of all — flashes a hellacious cruelty-to-animals streak. Cue Wick’s quest for vengeance in the gritty Donald E. Westlake mode.
It makes no difference to our hero that his target coincidentally is the son of his old employer, New York mob boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish-language “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” amusingly mixing menace with pass-the-Pepto fretfulness). Wick kicks down the door he’d closed on his former life and all of its violence and secrets. The coldly clinical, point-blank mayhem, impressively rendered with elaborate, near-constant action choreography and extended shots rather than hyper-editing. Wick’s edgy fraternity of killers, notably enigmatic Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and terrifically nasty Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). The unlisted, CSI-foiling cleanup crew that Wick calls in — cash only — after a bloodbath. And ah, yes, that hotel where the concierge (Lance Reddick) has a mob doctor on speed dial and the resident poo-bah (Ian McShane) coolly demands that murderous impulses be checked at the door. It’s all sharp stuff from Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves finds decently tailored material in their mix of busy physicality, spare drama, and wickedly dry humor.
The movie’s one big pitfall, really, is that Reeves’s character is so intently focused, he takes care of business a bit too quickly. Some final skirmishing and a tonally false sign-off feel like unconvincing bids to stretch the story to a more legit feature length. We’d be up for seeing John Wick get pulled back in again, but with good cause.