John Wick
This premise has been done before, and very recently: in “The Equalizer,” Denzel Washington plays a former assassin who decides to come out of retirement to protect an innocent victim from the cruel and remorseless Russian Mob. In “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves plays a former assassin who decides to come out of retirement to take on the Russian Mob, in order to avenge an innocent victim: his dog? Given to him, posthumously, by his terminally-ill wife?
At least in Denzel Washington’s case, the character he played was complex and interesting, even compelling, with at least a hint of charm and no small amount of ordinary humanity. In the role of John Wick, however, the non-enigmatic Keanu Reeves just comes across as a one-dimensional no-brainer, humorless and monochromatic. John Wick is quicker than everyone else to the draw, and it’s a good thing, because he mows down a lot of anonymous gangsters, and some he even dispatches with close-quarter in-fighting.
The supposed bad guy, Tarasov (but there really is no good guy here), is played by Michael Nyqvist, a Swedish actor whose English is heavily accented despite a year in Omaha, Nebraska, as a high school exchange student. Maybe they think we dumb Americans won’t know the difference between a Swedish accent and a Russian one. But at least his character is somewhat complex. He speaks to John Wick of their both being trapped in a gilt-edged prison of their own making. Conveniently, Wick used to work for Tarasov, so he’s picked up some Russian (one wonders how native speakers would characterize his accent). Tarasov is even seen laughing almost hysterically as he approaches the final “mano y mano” scene against John Wick, just reveling in the irony of it all, both of their lives a rubble pile of flaming ruins, and yet they grimly continue to pursue each other to the death, as if that’s the only ending that either could conceive.
And here’s where it gets almost interesting. They agree, at the end, to just duke it out alone on the wharf. No guns. As if that would be ungentlemanly or something. Or less satisfying. But the younger and more experienced fighter, Wick quickly gets the drop on Tarasov, who then pulls out a knife (well, he’s a bad guy, so we don’t expect him to act with integrity, right?). Wick eventually wrestles the knife away from him, but then does something strange: he purposefully stabs himself with it, as if, somehow, to make the match more even. As if he doesn’t want to come out of this unscathed, anyway. As if he’d rather know oblivion that he would the empty life he just returned to, the conscienceless assassin, after he had somehow successfully managed to be in a real relationship, though, sadly, that was over now, as well.
So at the end he breaks into the pound and finds himself another dog? And that’s the big reward for enduring this marathon urban battlefield? Well, at least there’s the always-arresting presence of Willem Dafoe, recruited by Tarasov as Wick’s archenemy, but somehow a self-appointed guardian angel instead. As if there may not be honor among thieves, but there is, at least, a kind of silent code of ethics among paid assassins. Good to know.
This movie is just a slickly-produced slaughterfest. Nothing more, nothing less.
And after a while we yearn for even a drop of the milk of human kindness. Or even a little bit of love.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas