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film review

Keanu Reeves stars as the titular character in John Wick.David Lee

New drinking game: Drink every time a character in the movie John Wick says the words "John Wick." With any luck, you'll be carried out of consciousness well before the film's lean-on-paper 96 minutes run their course.

Starring Keanu Reeves as a retired hitman getting back into the game to settle a score – a plot setup that an iPhone could probably auto-complete after the words "a retired hitman …" – John Wick is the most blatant attempt to establish a character's name recognition since the Angelina Jolie actioneer Salt.

It feels like every sixth line of dialogue breaking up the string of bloody, close-quarters brawls and murky, boring shootouts contains, or is entirely constituted by, the words "John Wick." Reeves even says "Wick, John Wick" like he's copping Bond. It's a surprising show of restraint that the film's credits don't come fitted with a knock-off version of the Shaft theme, supplied with chorus responses of "Wick!"

Yes, John Wick's a not-so-complicated man whom no one understands but his woman (Bridget Moynahan). Then that woman dies of cancer, leaving our grieving contract killer with nothing but memories of life more ordinary. And an adorable puppy. Then that puppy is killed by Russian gangsters. They also steal John Wick's car, a cherry-condition '69 Mustang.

Speaking against music-censorship legislation in 1984, infamous kook-rocker Frank Zappa commented that in their severity, the proposed laws were the equivalent of "treating dandruff by decapitation." The same can be said of John Wick's tack on this-time-it's-personal retribution. A dead puppy and stolen car are met with biblical vengeance, as Wick tears through New York, indiscriminately murdering anyone who is a Slavic criminal or who may unfortunately find themselves standing between a Slavic criminal and John Wick.

Wick's target is a sneering heir to a mob empire, played by Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones's Theon Greyjoy. Again, Allen plays a violently impulsive disappointment to a glowering father (Michael Nyqvist). But then, nobody in John Wick is cast against type. There's Deadwood's Ian McShane as a garrulous hotelier, Oz's Dean Winters as Nyqvist's sleazeball man-at-hand and The Wire's Clarke Peters as a stern and dignified presence amid the shoot-'em-up mayhem, to single out just a few members of the film's packed stable of "hey it's that guy!" C-listers.

Then there's Reeves, whose spiky, middle-parted bangs make him look like an early draft of a character from a Final Fantasy video game and whose characteristically affectless "duh, duh" delivery make John Wick feel like a gloomier, grislier riff on Dude, Where's My Car?

Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski distinguished themselves as Hollywood stuntmen, and their experience shows. This is a film where every human being is a sack of meat waiting to be tenderized. Not even the wide-eyed puppy dogs are safe.

Worse is Derek Kolstad's screenplay, which touches on every revenge-movie cliché like he cranked it out overnight to net a barely passable D-plus in a night-school screenwriting class. The great revenge movies – the original Death Wish, the first Taken movie – work because the stakes are intensely personal. The setup in John Wick just feels like sloppy narrative longhand for someone flipping a switch to turn a reformed killer back into a plain old killer.

The film also seriously courts a ludicrous idea that there's a whole not-so-secret subculture of contract killers, with their own bars where they trade in their own literal currency. John Wick's particular set of skills barely registers as exceptional, let alone thrilling, in a world where everyone else is comparably equipped.

Leaden, preposterous and short on even the wrong kind of laughs, there's a new name in plain, crummy action cinema: Wick. John Wick. Drink.