Keanu Reeves solidifies himself as an iconic movie star with ‘John Wick’

Mark Ciemcioch
Oct 24 · 6 min read
Keanu Reeves took audiences on a ride in 2014’s “John Wick.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate Films)

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“John Wick”
Released Oct. 23, 2014
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch

For most of his career, Keanu Reeves has been a movie star who was underappreciated, the subject of light mockery that he was always cast in projects above his fighting weight. That all changed with 2014’s “John Wick.”

Backing up a decade or three, the Canadian actor first gained fame in 1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a time travel comedy where Reeves played one half of a spacey teen duo. The performance managed to stick with the public more than anybody imagined, as the “Whoa” dude persona influenced how audiences saw him in subsequent movies, whether Reeves wanted it or not. He played spacey in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood,” and became an FBI agent gone surfing in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break,” adding to the perception.

In hindsight, perhaps it just took the public a long time to catch up to what Reeves was good at. He quietly put together a filmography filled with diverse choices, working with several Academy Award-winning directors along the way. What was once derided, Reeves’ non-verbal facial reactions now manage to convey more to audiences than other actors with a page of dialogue. But perhaps what was the biggest surprise was Reeves turning in engaging performances in some of the most successful and acclaimed action films over several decades, including “Point Break,” “Speed” in 1994, “The Matrix” in 1999, and finally, “John Wick.”

After the massive success of the Matrix trilogy, Reeves spent most of the back half of the 2000s appearing in smaller films and supporting roles. He spent several years preparing to make his directorial debut with “Man of Tai Chi,” but it felt like Reeves best years were behind him. In 2010, just as social media began popularizing joking graphics, a photo of Reeves sitting on a bench alone became the “Sad Keanu” meme.

All things considered, the stage was perfectly set for “John Wick” to become the next great Reeves film, because the character’s story seemed to mirror the public’s perception of the star.

“John Wick” begins with Reeves as the title character, waking up on the morning of his wife’s funeral. He goes through the process of mourning her and returns to their home, only to find his late wife sent him one last gift: a puppy dog intended to keep hope in John’s heart alive.

The two bond quickly, or at least, as much as anyone bonds with the quiet, intense John. After taking the dog for a ride in his Ford Mustang Mach 1, John stops for gas when a trio of young, loud Russian men notices the beautiful car. When one of them, Iosef (Alfie Allen), offers to buy the car, John rebuffs him. Later that night, the men break into John’s house and assault him, kill the dog, and steal the vehicle.

All hell breaks loose, because it turns out that John is a master assassin, the most feared in the criminal underworld, and he’s plenty pissed.

It’s remarkable how meta the narrative of “John Wick” speaks to the career resurgence of Reeves. The star had mostly disappeared from the public view, as the multiplex marketplace shifted more and more to tent pole superhero films, and the latest thing people remembered about him was the “Sad Keanu” meme. John Wick, the character is sad over the death of his wife, and has retired from the lifestyle that made him a legend. One chance encounter with the Russian trio changes all of that, forcing John to go back down to a lifestyle he thought he had left behind, to bring up a part of himself he had believed buried (This literally happens, as John’s weapons supply was placed under concrete in his basement). John then moves to track down the men who wronged him, re-entering the high society criminal underworld he left behind.

In his quest for vengeance, John must encounter Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who previously used Wick as an enforcer and was the boss who initially granted him his “retirement.” As John tears through his crew and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, Viggo finally gets the upper hand and has his former associate bound and helpless. It’s at this point when John, frequently intense and quiet, releases his emotions in a monologue that ends with a renewed promise of death for his adversaries.

“People keep asking me if I’m back, and I haven’t really had an answer,” John spits at his captures. “But now, yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!”

With the success of “John Wick,” Reeves reclaimed his status as a talented movie star, releasing two sequels to the film, appearing in several acclaimed and popular movies, and even returned to the Bill and Ted, and Matrix franchises. Adding the John Wick franchise to his previous work in “Point Break,” “Speed,” and the Matrix films, Reeves now has a compelling case as the best North American action star of his generation, and effortlessly its most versatile.

The John Wick sequels are notable for their expansion of the underworld syndicate introduced here, as well as their exquisitely performed and filmed action sequences. However, rewatching the original “John Wick” is illuminating in that the film manages to skillfully obscure the skills of the protagonist for the entire first act of the movie. As the sequels feature our hero on the run or on the move always, and it’s utterly bizarre to now see John wake up in his stylish suburban home in a warm bed, get up to make coffee, and maybe pour a bowl of cereal for himself. He’s in no hurry to get anywhere. For all the audience knows, John is just an ordinary guy at this point, albeit one suffering the loss of his true love, which makes the revelation that he’s considered the Baba Yaga (or Boogeyman) of the underworld play that much better.

Reeves’ performance is a landmark in his career, and the story, as noted, is compelling. Still, directors Chad Stahelski (and an uncredited) David Leitch make John Wick’s world stylish and dynamic. The underworld characters, especially at the Continental (a hotel for assassins and criminals that also serves as a neutral zone they can relax in without fear of violence), are all dressed in tailored suits and sleek dresses. They socialize in private elite clubs and drive expensive cars. This is an underworld we would all aspire to be in if it wasn’t for all the murders and betrayals.

The directors have a stunningly visually dynamic style, but what’s not surprising is the well-choreographed action sequences. Both directors have experience as stuntmen, and Stahelski even doubled for Reeves in the Matrix series. The result is not chaotic mayhem but instead well planned set pieces, where the action not only excites but also reveals character as John dispatches mobs of hired goons with ruthless efficiency.

“John Wick” had a modest opening weekend back in 2014, falling behind the horror thriller “Ouija,” and had little staying power at the box office. But word of mouth of the movie consistently spread as more and more audiences discovered how compelling it was. “John Wick: Chapter 2” was released in 2017, doubling the original’s opening weekend and overall grosses. This year’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” doubled its movie theater audience again, and more films are planned in the future.

So yeah, I’m thinking Keanu Reeves is back.

The Weekend: Speaking of notable action stars, two 80s films were released at this point historically that proved to be defining moments for both men. In 1982, Sylvester Stallone’s lonely Vietnam vet fights back against the aggressive treatment by local law enforcement, as “First Blood” introduces John Rambo to film audiences. Two years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger terrified audiences as an unstoppable killer in James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” Incredibly, both stars are still making movies as these characters in films released this year, but despite the beleaguered history of these franchises, “First Blood” and “The Terminator” totally hold up as arguably the best films of those series.

Another movie that saw a minor release but created a legacy that lasted far beyond box office totals was “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature from 1992.

With Halloween fast approaching in the calendar, many horror films make their debuts this weekend, including “Halloween: The Return of Michael Myers” in 1988, “The Grudge” in 2004, several sequels in the Saw franchise from 2005–07, and last year’s sequel “Halloween.” We’ll cover the 1978 original in a few weeks, but first …

Next Week: “Romeo + Juliet”


Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on October 24, 2019.

Mark Ciemcioch

Written by

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade