Actually, he kind of does look civilized.
John Wick is a very minimalist action movie that still manages to find a strong core of characterization, emotional involvement, and catharsis. Meanwhile, many people are shot in the head. This is good for us. Good for the place we’re in. As strong, high-quality action movies make a soaring comeback, everybody wins.
Watching John Wick is all about the visceral, pure enjoyment of a super-humanly competent murder-machine do his thing over a motive we never seem to grow tired of. That said, revenge as a motivator in films is rarely this elemental. As a reflex to the fact that it’s so common, revenge is usually complicated and messy. Not so in John Wick.
Though its action and surprising ability to move emotionally are John Wick‘s best features, there’s also a bit of world building that makes for a movie that feels slightly adjacent to Tarantino’s Kill Bill universe, or something out of a comic book or anime. This stuff is also minimalist, edging into the margins just enough to be noticeable and to inspire a little imagination in the audience, but never so much as to be cheesy or straining suspension of disbelief.
Dog lovers will rejoice, curse, then rejoice some more.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a hitman in retirement. Not just any hitman, though, but maybe one of the most famous in New York City. Before meeting his wife and giving up the life, he helped a Russian gangster, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) rise to power in the criminal underworld. That gangster went on to raise a spoiled brat, Iosef (Alfie Allen) completely unaware of and disrespectful to the weight of what came before him. Old timers like John Wick, the Russian, and satellite personalities we see throughout the film all keep to a certain code of behavior that the new generation doesn’t really respect.
Does that sound like subtext? Of course it does.
Anyway, Iosef and Wick encounter each other sometime after Wick’s wife has died, leaving him a puppy to help him process his grief. The puppy is about the most adorable and instantly sympathetic dog in the history of dogs, by the way. Iosef, however, is a terrible little shit who wants Wick’s car bad enough to break into his house, beat him up, and kill the poor dog.
Which daddy don’t like.
Wick, unsurprisingly, doesn’t appreciate this. The awe and fear in peoples’ voices and reactions as they try to explain to Iosef just what he’s done and who to is like something out of a horror movie. Then Wick basically visits a horror movie onto every henchman and crony the Russians have. This also has the effect of reintroducing Wick (and the audience) the NYC Hitman World that was created for this movie.
This world has its own rules, safe spaces, protocols, and even a currency. None of this is ever exposited directly, though clarifications of certain protocols are made as characters like Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) violate them. Between her turn on Agents of Shield and roles like this, I am really starting to Palicki. Funny how that is, considering how much I hated her role (not her performance really) in GI Joe: Retaliation. Also, she gets to kill a beloved The Wire alum, but I won’t tell you which.
She looks quite a bit like Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), actually.
Though the world-building is fun, its the character actors and heavies that fill out that world which make it really work. Actors like Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, and even Willem Dafoe have small roles that are very enjoyable. Hell, John Wick even brings in Daniel Bernhardt (who played an Agent in The Matrix Reloaded) to throw down with Keanu for our viewing pleasure. Unlike cameos and walk-on roles usually taken half-seriously by actors, every one of these guys infuses their performance in John Wick with enough weight and fun to make them stand out without overshadowing the movie or feeling like they phoned it in. This is actually pretty impressive because it so rarely happens in a cameo-heavy movie like this. Not to mention that these middle-tier (as in, not a two-hundred million dollar superhero movie) action movies rarely bring in this much talent.
John Wick only really has one lead performance, though, and it’s totally down to Keanu Reeves. This is a guy who acts with his whole body, has astonishing physical presence in pretty much every role he’s done, but who is also fairly stoic and impassive as a performer. This makes his range limited, but this is exactly the kind of role where he excels. He’s taken a lot of shit over the years but lately seems to be finding his way into solid roles (as an actor or director) where his strengths can shine through. More than just kicking ass and looking immortal doing it, his stoicism gives him a shell that we can watch slowly crack open as the movie progresses, revealing the wounds beneath. When he finally gets really fucked up, mostly angry, Keanu does the unhinged thing he so rarely gets to and that he is so fucking good at. I’ll also note that this is a movie that, through his performance, gives us an example of masculinity that, while pulpy as shit, has room for vulnerability and tears. But to be fair, most people are going to be praising him for the action in this movie. At 50, he puts in the action performance of a 25 year old or a Tom Cruise and you’ll think he’s barely missed a beat or a round of training since filming The Matrix over 10 years ago.
Take that, Holy Ghost!
In John Wick, bullets take the place of punches and all action is choreographed with heavy emphasis on economy and precision of motion. When I say that Wick is a murder-machine, I mean it. He does get beat down, shot at, even hit by a car, but most of the time he’s as “on” as any action hero ever has been ever. Remember Tom Cruise’s ruthless precision in Collateral? John Wick is that x1000.
The Raid 2 will rightly be remembered as the definitive action movie of 2014, but John Wick should be mentioned in the same breath. This is partly due to its very different approach to action, at least when compared to the norm of hyper-edited or completely CG action sequences. John Wick is a movie of long takes, of space enough from the action to have total clarity. It’s also a movie for the stuntmen (much like The Raid 2) as opposed to the graphics artists. In fact, former stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (who have worked with Reeves in the past) should be lauded for such a stellar directorial debut. Their attention to detail and their overall approach to the technical aspects on top of the action really lets Derek Kolstad‘s lean, mean script shine. Not to mention the fact that John Wick is pretty much Kolstad’s first script.
Look at these guys go! No pictures can do this movie justice.