Movies can be more than just a collection of moving pictures captured on film. They can be insightful and inciting calls to arms. They can be mentally stimulating puzzles within conundrums. They can be introspective treatise on the human condition. They can be living testaments to the power of emotion.
John Wick is none of these things. What it is, is pure, undiluted, high-octane skop, skiet en donner action at its very best. With a plot so lean so as to be nothing more than gristle and grit, longtime stuntmen/action coordinators turned first-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch give us a movie that is essentially just a framework on which they can construct some of the most kick-ass ass kicking (and shooting) that I have seen in ages. And I applaud them for it!
In short – literally – John Wick sees the titular retired mob hitman (Keanu Reeves), mourning the recent death of his wife, helped along by the puppy she left him as a parting gift before succumbing to some undisclosed malady and the vintage 1969 Mustang he takes out a local skid pan to blow off steam. The flashy car catches the eye of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the snivelling, entitled son of local Russian mob boss Viggo (Michaal Nyqvist), and when Wick declines his offer to purchase the car, Iosef breaks into Wick’s house, steals the sweet ride and kills his dog. Uh oh.
And thus what follows is 90 minutes or so of Wick illustrating to Iosef and the various hitmen/hitwomen sent by his father to protect him – usually with the very instructive visual aid of several bullets blowing apart their squishy bits – just why that was the biggest of mistakes.
Now to be fair, despite the spartan nature of the main plot, there is a very deftly created underlying mythology to the world of John Wick that is hinted at often in screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s script. All transactions among members of this death-dealing society are conducted with special gold coins, the cops are in on the workings of the underworld, there’s a special “dinner service” you can call up to clean up your messy hits, and there’s a hotel/club that acts as “sanctified ground” where no killing of respective targets or each other is allowed.
But as skillfully subtle as the world-building is here, fiscal policies and inter-personal intricacies of an underground contract killer society is not why you’re watching this movie. No, you’re here to see Keanu Reeves dispatch waves of unfortunate bad guys with whatever instrument of death comes to hand, in the coolest way possible. And in that regard, John Wick delivers on its promises and then some.
Summarily, what Gareth Evans’ The Raid did for bloody fist-fights, John Wick does for explosive shootouts. With their aforementioned background in stunt and action co-ordination (both men were part of Reeves’ stunt team on The Matrix), Stahelski and Leitch breathe much-needed fresh air into the stale genre of people just pointing things at each other that go “bam!”. They stage scenes with such a ridiculously high level of technical proficiency and brutal inventiveness, that I was left continuously asking myself “Why had nobody ever thought of doing [INSERT ACTION MOVIE STAPLE HERE] like this before?”.
In their hands, a simple home invasion scenario or car-chase shootout is turned into a masterpiece of action and suspension, with Reeves as their chosen tool (no pun intended) to show off their violent artistry. And amazingly, you can see it all!
As Reeves is shooting, rolling, shooting, flipping, shooting, stabbing and again shooting his way through all the unlucky human-shaped bullet receptacles in front of him, Stahelski and Leitch capture it all clearly and concisely with a camera that eschews the recent trend of giving the cameraman a seizure while filming to try to artificially amplify the action. John Wick needs no fake amplification as it doesn’t just have its action dial permanently turned up to 11, but there’s also a palpable stylish coolness to it that just oozes out of every well-constructed frame.
It may be true that other than Adrianne Palicki’s devilish turn as Ms. Perkins – a rival killer with no regard for the rules – and Willem Dafoe’s sombre and mature Marcus – another of Wick’s hitmen friends – there’s not much else memorable about the cast. And yes, when Reeves is not busy wading through his enemies with macabre delight, he turns in a marble-mouthed performance made worse by the fact that his laughable dialogue often consists of nothing more than sub-vocalized grunts and him just repeating what other characters had just said – only a lot more wooden.
But this is one movie where such things as character depth and nuanced performances play second fiddle to the ballet of electrifying and – most importantly – unadulterated, gleefully fun action put on-screen by Stahelski and Leitch. Just like with not adhering to the teachings of the Paul Greengrass School of Cinematographical Masturbation, the assured future action-direction superstars Stahelski and Leitch know that John Wick needs no artificial additives. This is organic, free range, fat-free badassery the likes of which modern cinema sorely needs more of.
John Wick opens in theatres tomorrow, December 19, 2014.
Last Updated: March 14, 2017
December 18, 2014 at 14:51
What?! 4 out of 5 for a Keanu Reeves movie? You mean it’s nothing like 47 Ronin? Colour me intrigued… I may have to go check this out now. Great review, as always, Kervyn. 🙂