For a review of “John Wick,”
Where have you gone, Keanu Reeves? With the exception of two movies released late last year that no one saw (“47 Ronin” and “Man of Tai Chi,” his directorial debut), Reeves hasn’t starred in a film since 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Watching Reeves punch and kick and shoot his way through “John Wick,” a generic but well- crafted shoot-’em-up, you’re reminded what a great action star he is — balletic, graceful, athletic and always in the moment. Unlike, say, the cast of “The Expendables,” who seem to be wondering whether they remembered to turn off the coffee maker that morning in every shot, Reeves invests himself fully as a retired hit man who runs afoul of some Russian mobsters.
Yes, we’re back in the land of improbable gun fights, thick accents and goonish villains, just like we were during all those forgettable action pictures from the 1980s. Reeves is the only one on screen who comes close to resembling an actual person, and he’s practically superhuman. First-time co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are former stuntmen who know how to stage an effective fist fight, but the movie is so thin and lightweight it makes Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer” seem like an Oscar contender (at least that movie has a fresh gimmick).
After what Gareth Evans accomplished in the astonishing “The Raid 2: Berandal,” the bar has been raised for crime thrillers. You have to bring something new to justify your place at the table, and “John Wick” is all remixed leftovers.
Still, there is Reeves, the rare sort of action star who seems capable of doing what his character does in real life (watch the smooth way in which he replaces empty clips on his guns while trading fire with the bad guys). “John Wick” reminds you what a bracing presence he can be when matched with the right role (“Point Break,” “The Matrix,” “Speed,” “Constantine”). Why has he been sent to Hollywood jail?
In interviews, the actor has stated that the offers just stopped coming after “The Day the Earth Stood Still” flopped, as if the film’s failure had been his fault. “John Wick” reminds you this actor deserves better.
Reeves makes the movie entertaining in a background- noise way, but he can’t give it any gravity, even when the filmmakers pull the cheapest trick in the book to get the audience to root for the hero and hiss at the Eurotrash villains. Someone get this man some good work, quick.
“John Wick,” a Summit Entertainment release, is rated R for vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Running time: 101 minutes.
For all the boozed and abusive amusement provided by the great Bill Murray in the good-enough “St. Vincent,” the moment I liked best was Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper, manhandling a vacuum across the Murray character’s ancient carpet. In movies as in life, it’s the little things.
In another scene, the alcoholic, misanthropic Vietnam vet played by Murray is locking horns with a snippy young teller at his bank. In frustration Murray thunks his forehead against the glass. Two seconds in length, scripted or improvised, it’s the sort of punctuation any comedy needs.
Plenty in writer-director Theodore Melfi’s slick feature debut can be accused of overstatement and rib-elbowing. The broader visual comedy lacks finesse. But the actors win out. Even “St. Vincent’s” climactic, full-on yank at our heartstrings can be forgiven because, well, Murray’s in it. And his co-stars likewise know exactly what they’re doing every second.
Melfi’s film is less slapsticky than its trailers suggest. In a corner of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, N. Y., miraculously denuded of hipsters, Vincent lives a small life, racking up gambling debts, drinking too much, regretting his actions even as they’re happening. Then newly single Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, plainly relieved not to be playing a shrill caricature) moves in next to Vincent with her pret e r naturally wise and mature 12-year-old, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie needs child care; Vincent says he’ll do it for $11 an hour; the rest of “St. Vincent” is taken up with the Murray character’s notions of ef f ective mentoring, which involve the horses, the bloody vanquishing of neighborhood bullies and an unlikely friend or two.
There’s a sweetness to the relationships, whether you believe those relationships or not. Watts’ character, a sometime call girl, has a grudging affection for Vincent. Chris O’Dowd as one of young Oliver’s Catholic school instructors may be overqualified for this supporting role, but his blithe charisma lightens each of his scenes.
Melfi’s training in commercials comes through in “St. Vincent.” His montages are designed for shorthand storytelling, and this is determinedly mainstream commercial comedy, albeit commercial comedy with a strong undertow of sadness. However shrewdly handled by Murray, the scenes in which Vincent visits his Alzheimer’s-addled wife in a retirement facility nudges the material into darker territory. You may suffer whiplash from the more extreme of these switcheroos.
And yet, at this point in the 21st century we may as well declare Murray our national person, or president for life, or something. His comic and dramatic tech- nique has mellowed into mastery. The sadness behind his eyes is there, even at his most antic, and it’s this forlorn quality that makes Vincent seem like a person, as opposed to a screenplay pitch. Murray has been the life of so many parties in the movies, the burden may have worn him down a little.
Yet it’s been useful for his acting, which doesn’t seem like acting at all. If we’re lucky we’ll soon see Murray granted a role as wonderful as he is. Meantime “St. Vincent” will do.
“St. Vincent,” a -Weinstein Co. release is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language. Running time: 102 minutes.