By Richard Corliss
October 24, 2014

A cop knocks on the door of John Wick’s home late one night and can’t help noticing a few thugs mortally strewn across the living room floor. “You workin’ again?” he asks mildly. “No,” Wick replies, “I’m just sorting stuff out.” The cop smiles and says, “O.K., John, Good night.”

Five years ago, Wick (Keanu Reeves) was an expert hit man who often worked for the Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He fell in love with Helen (Bridget Moynahan), got out of the game, had a few peaceful years, then nursed Helen through the long cancer siege that finally took her life. Her parting gift: a beagle named Daisy to keep John company. Then Viggo’s screw-up son Iosef (Alfie Allen) brought a half-dozen of his henchmen to Wick’s house, beat him up, stole his car and killed the dog. In a few moments Iosef’s pals were the dead mess the cop spotted. John Wick is officially unretired.

And Keanu Reeves is back as an action star in John Wick. At 50 — 20 years after Speed made him a top-billed glowering hunk, and more than a decade since he played Neo in the Matrix trilogy — he’s not the hot icon he used to be. His last film, 47 Ronin, was an expensive flop, and he recently complained that the major studios don’t want him. (“It sucks.”) He gets headlines only when strange women pull a Iosef and break into his home, as two did on separate occasions last month. But on screen he’s still the essence of Zen cool.

In 1960, French critic Michel Mourlet famously proclaimed that “Charlton Heston is an axiom,” meaning that Heston’s image and impact transcended the definition of movie performer. In that sense, Keanu Reeves is a koan: a paradox that confounds all reason. Within the narrow range of emotions he displays — mad Keanu, bad Keanu and of course Sad Keanu — Reeves does not exactly act; he just is. And in John Wick, where he plays a retro Neo in a crime drama with lots of martial arts and gun fu, that “is” is plenty.

Action heroes need only the flimsiest motivation to start killing people. In The Rover, Guy Pearce launched a vendetta to get his car back; in Seven Psychopaths, gangster Woody Harrelson just wanted to retrieve his beloved Shih Tzu. Wick director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch hand their hero the double loss of his car and his dog, which is more than enough incentive for him to wipe out about 70 bad guys, one at a time, across New Jersey and New York City. He’ll use a handgun at close range in a Manhattan night club, a rifle on a rooftop across from Iosef’s Brooklyn hideout. He applies his lethal hands and feet in judo, jujitsu, the Russian sport called Sambo and, in a fine tussle with Viggo’s most imposing henchman Avi (Dean Winters), a mixture of wrestling and strangling.

Stahelski, who performed Reeves’ fight scenes in the Matrix movies, and Leitch, who stunt-doubled for Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, also served as action coordinators on The Hunger Games, The Bourne Legacy and Dracula Untold. Now in charge of a whole movie, they bring a sleek, chic gusto to the six or seven big action scenes, shooting the mayhem in longish takes rather than chopping it into short shots. Their work is not exactly edifying, but if you can forget the specter of North American gun carnage for a moment, you will acknowledge the movie’s violent artistry even as Viggo admires Wick’s. He calls him the Boogeyman, not because Wick is the monster from Russian legend but because “He’s the one you send to kill the f—in’ Boogeyman.”

So who’re you gonna call to kill Wick? Viggo has a couple of paid assassins in mind: the avuncular sniper Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and — simply because the filmmakers belatedly realized there were no living woman in Derek Kolstad’s script — the karate cutie Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). When they can’t finish the job, Viggo confronts Wick mano a mano, because intimate enemies should really settle things with fists, not guns.

The problem with this face-off is that Viggo is outmatched. Nyqvist, who played the crusading journalist in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, is solid but a little too genial as Wick’s looming adversary. It’s Alfie who triggered Wick’s revenge rage; Viggo is just the gruff dad trying to clean up his grown boy’s stupid spillages. The movie should have given its main villain a grander malevolence. — say, halfway through, Viggo tells Wick, “By the way, your wife’s cancer? I gave it to her.” (R-rated action films plant diseased thoughts like this in a viewer’s head.)

Quibbles aside, John Wick is the smartest display of the implacable but somehow ethical Reeves character since the 2008 Street Kings. It has vividly choreographed fights, a suave black suit for its hero to stalk in, swank homes and hotels to demolish, hoodlums who prove both the banality and the poor marksmanship of evil, and a hero with no greater moral purchase on our rooting interest than that he’s Keanu Reeves, and the bad guys killed his dog.

What else does a movie need? If you say complex human beings facing knotty moral dilemmas, you have mixed your media. You mean a Broadway play or a high-end cable series. Action movies are about movement, and John Wick pursues that goal with remorseless verve.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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