Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick in "John Wick."

Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick in "John Wick." Credit: TNS

Keanu Reeves plays the title role in "John Wick," the story of a retired hit man dragged back into the underworld. Occasionally clever and surprisingly funny between the long stretches of dreary violence, "John Wick" is so unclear on its own concept that it thrashes around desperately like one of Wick's unfortunate victims. Imagine a combination of "Unforgiven" and "Men in Black," and you're getting close.

"John Wick" sets up a comfortingly familiar scenario. Wick's wife has died of an unnamed illness, leaving him Daisy, an adorable beagle puppy, for companionship. At this vulnerable moment, a blinged-out Russian kid named Iosef (Alfie Allen) breaks into Wick's house, steals his 1969 Mustang and kicks little Daisy to death.

Cue the blind rage and reversion to former, horrible self. Iosef turns out to be the son of a major crime boss, Viggo (an enjoyable Michael Nyqvist, of the "Dragon Tattoo" movies), which means two great forces are about to clash. So far, so formulaic, but right here -- we're about 15 minutes in -- "John Wick" begins losing its focus.

For starters, watching Wick spring into action is a disappointment. He's a killing machine, but almost always the same way, with a pistol at close range. That may be logical, but it isn't cinematic: The splatter of blood becomes routine, and the sound of gunfire grows monotonous. You can almost picture the audio technician tapping the same kapow! button scene after scene.

Worse, director Chad Stahelski suddenly steers the movie into cartoonish, semisupernatural territory, as Wick enters a parallel world in which gold coins open secret doors and ghoulish undertakers materialize to collect fresh corpses. Wick also checks into the spooky Continental Hotel, a safe haven where violent business is not allowed -- a notion screenwriter Derek Kolstad surely spotted in Reeves' 2005 film "Constantine." Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki and Clarke Peters play Wick's friends and potential enemies.

Despite some impressively rough stunts and moments of offbeat humor (Nyqvist provides most of them), "John Wick" ends up feeling like a slow march toward an anticlimax. You'll be amazed it's not three hours long.

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