John Wick (15)

three stars

Dir: Chad Stahelski

With: Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Michael Nyqvist

Runtime: 101 minutes

IT is often thought that the quickest way to a film critic's heart, assuming you believe in the existence of such a thing, is to deliver a 90 minute picture that finishes in good time to catch the last train home. Wrong. Well, not entirely correct. The real trick is to put a pooch in the picture. Ask Keanu Reeves, here making his screen comeback alongside a Beagle puppy so cute it makes Bambi look like Godzilla.

Reeves has appeared here and there, on and off, since his Noughties glory days in The Matrix, but nothing has quite hit the spot with audiences in the same way as the Wachowskis' creation once did. John Wick, then, is a happy homecoming for him both in terms of the director, Chad Stahelski, stuntman on The Matrix turned first-time director, and in the way this revenge thriller goes all out to be mega cool and ultra crowd pleasing. Reeves's Wick is not Neo, but he is a man in black who executes laughingly implausible feats while just about retaining the ability to be taken seriously. John Wick adapts the same gasp and giggle formula, and while far from perfect, its charm, slickness, and invention make it a perfectly moreish popcorn movie.

The story comes straight out of the beginner's guide to creating a comic book character. When we meet Wick he is not doing well, and in the first of a series of silky edits we loop back to find out why. Cue a tale of epic loss, a graveyard scene, a chat with a mysterious stranger, a towering sense of a warrior wounded. Then Stahelski plays his ace in the pack: that darn puppy. As one, the audience rolls over to have its collective tummy tickled.

After some ahh-inducing scenes of bonding between man and tiny beast (including some extremely fast driving on an abandoned airstrip, which I would not recommend with a puppy on a leather seat) we see Wick slowly putting his life together again.

It is the car that puts a spoke in his wheel. Being a classic, much in the way of Keanu, it attracts attention, and in the case of the son of a Russian gangster, attention of the wrong kind. As far as the car thieving thugs are concerned, Wick is just another nobody. What they are about to find out is that he once was a somebody, a hired killer, one of the best in the business, and he has kept hold of his guns. In short, one does not pop this guy's bubble wrap and live to tell the tale.

Stahelski, working from a screenplay by Derek Kolstad, is not afraid to pile on the cliches, be they puppies, Russian gangsters (the best of the bunch played by Sweden's Michael Nyqvist) or a hero bent on revenge. The film gets away with all of this because it offers much in the way of compensation. Besides the blisteringly choreographed action sequences and the deft editing which keeps the pace motoring along, John Wick has a sense of humour. It winks slyly at the audience just enough to say, "We know this is extremely silly, but isn't it fun?"

But as any party pooping critic knows, fun is relative. The body count is high and the violence, though essentially comic book, is full on, relentless, and after a time becomes tedious. Like corn in a field, John's enemies bend and snap as he rampages through them, accepting no excuses.

Which leads us to the film's ultimate saving grace, which is Reeves himself. Just over the threshold of his Fifties, he is in great shape as an action hero, and John Wicks finds him back to doing what he once did best, from fighting hand to hand in torrential rain to being slightly cheeky but never cheesy with the ladies. And there is still that wonderful other-worldly air about him that makes Reeves eminently watchable. The film opens in the UK tomorrow. A sequel has already been announced. How's that for doing the business?

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