As weaponized mayhem of the most disreputably electrifying kind, the sleek and eccentric revenge tale “John Wick” jabs far above its weight class thanks to the panther physicality of 50-year-old headliner Keanu Reeves and a tightly pitched mix of humor and expertly choreographed hyper-violence from writer Derek Kolstad and first-time director Chad Stahelski. It’s a B movie made with A-student love for the relentless thrill of bodies in brutal motion.
This taciturn, retired hit man’s story can be summed up thusly: loving wife dead, vintage Mustang stolen, cute dog killed, it’s time to hit “start” on a one-man bloodbath. Sad Keanu, meet Bad Keanu. When weary Russian mob kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) is told his thuggish son (Alfie Allen) provoked this dormant beast, he can only meekly deadpan, “Oh.” (Nyqvist’s winking turn is a highlight.)
A kinetic Reeves, literally dressed to kill, is dialed in to his own particular set of skills here. He executes the movie’s delirious close-quarters combat sequences — flips, chokeholds, knifings and head shots — like a forgotten man on fire: If anyone deserves a Liam Neeson-like tough guy renaissance, it’s this scruffier, more charmingly stoic version of the once-awkwardly robotic star. Stahelski, who stunt-doubled for Reeves on “The Matrix,” thoroughly gets action fundamentals: elegant framing, camera fluidity, judicious editing and to keep things aggro, a growling rock soundtrack.
“John Wick” is dotted with other pleasures, including elegant pulp-urban production design and lip-smacking, friend-or-foe character turns from Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki (as a gleeful assassin), Dean Winters and Lance Reddick. But center stage, it’s the dazzling fists and firearms of fury where “John Wick” sets itself apart. Just remember to hug your dog afterward.
MPAA rating: R for strong and bloody violence, language, brief drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Playing: In general release.