★ ★ ½

There’s a cardinal rule in movies: As bad as things get, you never kill the dog. Terrible things happen when you kill the dog, especially when said canine belongs to one of the underworld’s most feared assassins. That’s the setup for John Wick, a lean and efficient revenge yarn with zero pretensions and some refreshingly old-school action choreography.

It’s been more than five years since John Wick (Keanu Reeves) left behind a life of killing to marry the woman of his dreams. Those years were the best of his life—until a devastating illness stole her from him. Wick is still mourning his loss when his doorbell rings and he receives one final gift from his dearly departed: a loveable puppy named Daisy. Daisy has been sent as a present so that Wick won’t have to grieve alone, and so that he can learn to love again while taking his first tentative steps toward a new life. Sadly for Wick, that new life begins to merge with his old one when a gang of Russian thugs, led by the hotheaded Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), break into his house, steal his car, and brutally dispatch Daisy in the process. Enraged, Wick vows to make Iosef pay for the crime, even though it means returning to a violent world where every life has a price.

Iosef might not have known whom he was messing with when he crossed Wick, but his powerful father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) does; years ago, it was Viggo who granted Wick his wish to get out of the underworld in exchange for accomplishing an impossible task. In those days, Wick was known as “the Boogeyman,” but despite his skills, everyone thought his last job was a suicide mission. Incredibly, Wick survived, and the bodies he left in his wake formed the foundation of the empire that Viggo now sits proudly atop of. So when Viggo receives a call from Wick, he knows what’s coming and puts a two-million-dollar bounty on the Boogeyman’s head. Now, everyone from top assassin Marcus (Willem Dafoe) to lethal seductress Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) has his or her sights set on Wick, and when the legendary hitman books a room at a hotel for killers run by respected underworld figure Winston (Ian McShane), it’s anyone’s guess whether he will live to check out.

Some say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but in this hyper-violent action film, co-directed by stunt veterans David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, it’s served as fresh as the octopus that’s still squirming as it slides down Oh Dae-su’s throat in Oldboy. As unapologetically simple as Park Chan-wook’s movie was richly complex, John Wick looks and feels like a film that should have come out in the late ’90s, just before the Wachowskis ushered action cinema into the 21st century with The Matrix. Though John Wick does fall indeed back on the icy, now clichéd color palate that helped to set that movie apart from the pack when it first hit screens back in 1999, it’s the crunching original score by Marilyn Manson guitarist Tyler Bates and the co-directors’ refusal to embrace the post-Bourne Identity shaky-cam action trend that makes John Wick feel like a film from an alternate cinematic universe. And while the former may come as little surprise, given that Stahelski served as Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix and its first sequel, it’s hard not to wish that that influence had run a little deeper since the action choreography here is competent yet unremarkable. Yes, Wick can score a headshot while doing donuts in a shipyard at midnight, but had he done it with a bit more style, the film that bears his name might have been memorable for reasons beyond bucking current trends. Even when the screenplay by relative newcomer Derek Kolstad shows flashes of inspiration—as in his concept of a hotel for killers—its overreliance on tradition prevents it from ever breaking free of the mold in any significant way. From dialogue that you could lip-synch during the first viewing to the rusty working-his-way-up-through-the-ranks plot, Kolstad’s script represents the written embodiment of Leitch and Stahelski’s tried-and-true approach to directing. The trouble is, while changing trends make that traditional direction feel somewhat fresh again, dusty screenplays like this have been dragging the genre down as other scribes have been striving to innovate. Instead of complimenting one another, the direction and plotting effectively end up cancelling each other out, which makes this promising action throwback a faint echo of the past rather than an invigorating retro blast.