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THE death of a cherished pet propels a retired hitman to the brink of murderous insanity in Chad Stahelski’s blood-soaked action thriller.

Laced with macabre humour and punctuated by balletic fight sequences, John Wick embraces comedy and tragedy as its eponymous hero exacts eye-watering revenge for the slaying of a beloved beagle.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick

Keanu Reeves as John Wick

Keanu Reeves delivers one of his most compelling performances since The Matrix Trilogy in the title role, not that Derek Kolstad’s script asks a great deal of him.

The actor’s restricted repertoire of facial expressions fits perfectly with his assassin’s grit and determination despite overwhelming odds, and Reeves is well-equipped for the physical demands of breathless hand-to-hand combat and running gun battles.

A shootout in a club is particularly thrilling and screenwriter Kolstad repeatedly stokes the myth of his protagonist, like when one crime syndicate boss whispers, “I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil”.

Hit man John Wick (Reeves) holsters his weapons for good to marry his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan).

Shortly after terminal illness upends the fairy tale, John receives a present from his wife: an adorable beagle puppy called Daisy and a note which reads, “I have found my peace, now find yours”.

The assassin comes to terms with his loss through his bond with the animal.

One night, Russian playboy Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) and his underlings (Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore) break into John’s home, beat him to a pulp and kill Daisy.

This act of senseless brutality fuels John’s lust for revenge and he hunts down Iosef, ignoring the fact that his target is the son of powerful mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).

John dismisses Viggo’s pleas for leniency so the kingpin puts a 2 million US dollar bounty on the hitman’s head, piquing the interest of rival killers Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).

Meanwhile, John takes up lodgings at a hotel called the Continental, which caters for assassins and won’t allow murder on its premises.

“You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you might find something reaches out and drags you back in,” warns hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane).

John Wick recognises its strength and plays to them with wry humour, including an eye-catching turn from Lance Reddick as the Continental hotel’s obliging concierge, who doesn’t bat an eye at blood spatter on his clientele.

The beagle puppy couldn’t be cuter and we’re completely behind Reeves’ grief-stricken owner as he razes entire establishments in honour of his fallen four-legged friend.

Director Stahelski, who is a stunt co-ordinator by trade, is understandably more comfortable with flying fists than zinging dialogue.

However, he sustains dramatic momentum well and builds all of the wanton slaughter to a suitable grand resolution.

Check your local cinema for show times.