Keanu Reeves returns to theaters this weekend in Replicas, a new sci-fi flick in which he plays a scientist attempting to clone the family he lost in a car wreck. While that film looks, from the trailer, like a complete trainwreck, the appeal of Keanu Reeves “Movie Star” will remain regardless of how Replicas fares. In more than 30 years as a movie star, Keanu Reeves has earned our eternal adoration as the blankly handsome face of action movies.
As I wrote yesterday, in my review of The Matrix, it’s Reeves’ very blankness that makes his otherwise ethereal handsomeness an everyman quality. We relate to him because we project upon Keanu our own personality in a more conventionally handsome vessel. That is certainly the appeal of Keanu in The Matrix and that extends also to the budding John Wick franchise. Once again, Keanu is our attractive avatar, just enough of a blank personality for us to fantasize ourselves into the role.
John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the titular, John Wick, the world’s foremost assassin. Or, at least, he used to be. Once John Wick got married he retired his arsenal of death in favor of being a loyal and dutiful husband. Sadly, John’s wife recently passed away, leaving him a present, a dog, to help him to not be lonely. Though not conventionally a ‘dog person,’ John takes to the pup as a connection to his late wife.
One day, as John is out and about happily in retirement, he stops at a gas station while driving his cherry black muscle mustang. A seemingly random rich guy, the son of a local mobster, tries to convince John to sell his car. John rebuffs the offer and is on his way but the kid, played by Alfie Allen, is not one to take no for an answer. The kid sends thugs to kill John and take the car and during the assault, they kill John’s dog.This leads John Wick out of retirement and on the trail of the mobster’s kid.
The key to John Wick is the tremendous world building by screenwriter Derek Kolstad and the film’s credited and uncredited directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Every other character in John Wick goes out of their way to talk about how scary Wick is. The main bad guy in the movie, the mobster played by the late Michael Nyqvist, only opposes John Wick because of his son. He appears more upset with his son for attacking Wick than he does at Wick for wanting revenge.
Then there are the brilliant touches around the edges of John Wick. The fight scene in which the dog is killed ends with John Wick contacting a secret, underground cleaning service that specializes in disposing of bodies. The richness of this idea is remarkable as in the John Wick universe you could make a dark comic television show based on these minor characters who answer a question that has been raised in dozens of action movies in the past: how are bodies disposed of in action movies?
Then there is the brilliant creation of The Continental, a hotel that itself could be the premise of a movie or a television show. Ian McShane is the proprietor of The Continental, a luxury hotel that caters to criminals and assassins. So respected are the halls of The Continental that even the most hardened killers are obliged to honor the rules against killing on the premises. The Continental offers a swift justice to anyone who breaks the rules.
I could argue that the film’s treatment of women is less than great, the only woman with a relatively large role, Adrianne Palicki as contract killer Mrs Perkins, is not well fleshed out and feels like a token opposite all of the testosterone on display, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of John Wick. The sequel appears to be attempting to rectify the role of women in the John Wick Universe by casting Halle Berry in John Wick 3.
The Keanu Reeves of John Wick may have more clenched teeth intensity but he maintains that same quiet behind the eyes approach that makes him so appealing as an audience avatar. The quality that many critics fault Reeves for, a lack of a dominating personality, is, for me, one of his great strengths. He’s lowkey and passive enough as a personality to allow the audience to reflect ourselves in him.
In John Wick, Keanu offers us the role of a lifetime as the baddest man on the planet. He’s the man everyone else is afraid with a set of envious skills that we can pretend for 90 or 100 minutes our our skills. Through Keanu’s eyes we become John Wick and that audience identification with Keanu, his status as our resident handsome avatar is what makes Keanu a movie star who has lasted for so many years.