John Wick has become unstuck in time. The most fascinating thing about the latest attempt at reviving the career of Keanu Reeves (or at least maintaining it) is that it looks, feels and sounds like an action flick from the late ’90s or early 2000s. John Wick is stuck in a time warp where everyone still wears monochromatic suits, where Marilyn Manson is appropriate for the soundtrack and a big set piece takes place in a nightclub. It all makes for a strange, confounding movie, kind of like The Matrix (1999) sans ideas, but a film with an obvious and appreciated accessory because of this — the sense that it never takes itself too seriously.
This is a godsend, especially for the type of movie John Wick is, a bare-bones, straightforward action picture. And for the most part, first-time directors and longtime stunt coordinators and fight choreographers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are very in tune with this sensibility. Unfortunately for both them and their movie, they can’t quite sustain the promise John Wick shows in its first half, eventually unspooling into a movie that simply overstays its welcome and becomes too obsessed with its own sense of ersatz cool.
It’s a pity, too, because the film starts off strongly despite a fairly goofy premise — a goofy premise in line with its inherently playful nature. Reeves plays our titular character, a man whose wife (Bridget Moynahan) has just died from an unnamed illness. After her funeral, he receives one last gift from her — a puppy — and begins the grieving process, something that’s interrupted when he’s beaten up by home invaders, his vintage Mustang is stolen and his dog is murdered. It’s here that John Wick’s past is unveiled, as he was once an intensely proficient hit man, who — sufficiently pissed off — is out for revenge against the generic Russian gangsters who crossed him.
That’s the movie, really, as Wick heads out for blood, with a few detours here and there for world building. One of the movie’s stranger moves is its obsession with world building, all revolving around the idea that there’s a secret world — with its own laws and courtesies — of hit men out there. As a concept, it’s fine, but John Wick won’t leave its own mythology (a mythology that’s simply not that interesting) alone, thinking it’s way more clever and cool than it is. It’s not too intrusive at first, since the film is extremely slick and has an interesting structure that jumps back and forth within the story. But once the plot is fully engaged, the film becomes extremely straightforward, and John Wick’s obsession with its own coolness — cool that’s at least 15 years out of place — begins to wear.
It takes a while, though, since the action scenes are undeniably entertaining. Leitch and Stahelski obviously know how to stage and coherently shoot a fight scene and, again, John Wick doesn’t take itself too seriously in this regard. But like the rest of the movie, the fight scenes eventually run out of momentum. There’s only so many ways to punch some dude in the face, and John Wick never raises its own stakes, never feels quite absurd enough for the type of movie it wants to be. So what begins as a stylish, interesting purebred action movie becomes an unfortunate victim to its own lack of fresh ideas. Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use.