John Wick is a perfect indulgence of rich cinematic violence. In less pretentious terms, it’s a damn great time for action movie fans!
It’s interesting, because if there’s one thing we often associate Keanu Reeves with, it’s being understated, sometimes to the point of coming off as downright wooden. Reeves appears to be trying to recapture the greater sense of mainstream appeal that he had at the turn of the New Millennium with The Matrix and its sequels, and he appeared to hit an all-time low at the end of last year, thanks to the very unfortunate 47 Ronin.
That can now be placed firmly in the past though, as John Wick is a Keanu Reeves action vehicle done right, and the most exciting that the actor has ever been since squaring off with Agent Smith so many years ago. It’s also arguably one of the best surprise hits of the Fall season. The movie isn’t for the faint of heart, as its visceral gunfights and frequently brutal violence will quickly get under the skin of those without the stomach for that sort of thing, If you can handle the mess though, John Wick demands to be experienced on the big screen, and is essential viewing for enthusiasts of action movies!
John Wick pretty well entirely revolves around its title character. Since losing his wife (played briefly in flashback by Bridget Moynahan) to illness, John Wick has led an empty and lonely existence. After receiving a puppy in the mail, as a final gift from his wife, John begins the healing process, until he runs afoul of a cocky Russian gangster who wishes to steal his car. Beating John senseless and killing his new puppy, John decides to return to the old life he formerly buried to seek justice against the goons– As one of the world’s deadliest hit men!
The way that the mystique is done around John’s past is superbly executed, and the dialogue gives him an almost mythical air of divine justice. The offending gangster’s father, Viggo, played by Michael Nyqvist of the original Swedish Millennium Trilogy movies, puts it best when he asks if his son is afraid of the boogeyman, then follows that up by saying, “Well, John is the guy you send to kill the fucking boogeyman!” Clearly, John Wick is a gentleman not to be trifled with.
But, it’s too late, as John begins taking the audience through a tour of his old life, with just enough revealed to make it inviting, and just enough left to the imagination to make it consistently interesting. Personalities seem to come and go whenever the script calls for it, but it works, as that’s the nature of John’s profession. He uses a stack of saved gold coins for favours, relies on a slew of contacts who revere him as much as the villains do, which he’s obviously acquired over a long and successful career, and even on a violent crusade for revenge, he always respects the rules of his profession.
Much of the movie could simply be summed up as this guided tour through the former life of a ruthless killer. The audience won’t know who to trust any more than John will, and again, that’s part of the fun. John isn’t bulletproof, but he is smart, and he is extremely capable. He’s the exact right mix between someone who can semi-feasibly take out an entire goon squad by himself, yet not to the point where he feels like he’s got some sort of supernatural luck. We see him get shot, punched, choked, etc.. Yet despite clearly being a mortal man, John always comes out on top. We know he’s going to come out on top, but like any well-executed action flick, it’s seeing how he comes out on top that provides most of the entertainment value.
Predictably, we know little about the supporting personalities, and some (namely John Leguizamo as a chop shop owner) barely have two minutes of screentime. Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe play some of the other inhabitants of John’s world, either with or against him, but they all contribute to this sense of intrigue as to who John used to be. They also beg the question of whether John really can move on from such a violent past, or if this was just his inevitable return to the world of violence he was born for. Violence begets violence, as it were.
At the same time, the movie’s personalities are extremely simple, yet also open to so much interpretation. There’s enough of a window for audiences to draw their own conclusions about how John’s world works, and how his former contacts may work. We can invent their own backstories to a point, which works doubly well, as the most impactful kind of tension is the kind that’s often left up to audience imagination.
Again, you could sum up John Wick quite simply. The entire movie could be viewed as a simple revenge thriller that happens to have loads of headshots in it. For those willing to dig a little deeper though, it’s incredibly easy to appreciate the huge amount of effort that has gone into realizing John’s world.
Again, it’s not spoonfed to the audience, which is refreshing, but there’s just enough there to make you wonder. The filmmakers have put a superb amount of effort into creating a deep and rich implied mythology to John’s world. It’s more memorable than most other hit man-themed movies in that respect. Even just being a one-off action flick, John Wick paints enough broad strokes of its world to make it feel deep and alive, with many decades of history behind it, Everything has significance, even if it’s up to the audience to figure out that significance, and how it works.
Thus, the story isn’t a dumb action flick, but a smart action flick with all of the highlights of a dumb action flick. It can be as simple or as interpretive as you want it to be, and it’s a masterwork of showing and not telling.
Perhaps the most impressive element of an already impressive movie is that it was helmed by a first-time director, Chad Stahelski. Believe it or not, Stahelski was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double from The Matrix and its sequels (and in Reeves-starring DC Comics movie adaptation, Constantine), and even having no directing credits to his name, Stahelski has demonstrated an outstanding talent for visceral action cinematography, especially being Reeves’ former stand-in.
John Wick is one of those movies you just have to see on the big screen to best appreciate. The action is very tightly-choreographed and always 100% satisfying. Film buffs will adore the painstaking amount of effort that’s gone into realizing every smooth and brutal action beat, while action movie fans will love the consistently unpredictable and ruthlessly efficient way that John dispatches his enemies with extreme prejudice. There are some especially brutal sequences in the movie that are hard to watch, namely the killing of John’s puppy, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to rile you up, and it’s supposed to help invest the audience in John’s journey, making them just as eager for violent justice as he is.
This is excellent execution in realizing a memorable and powerful action movie, with just the right touches of subtlety added in as well. The only time that the movie seems to slightly ease off on the gas is during the final scrap between John and Viggo, which seems to be the point where John Wick has officially spent all of its relentless energy. Fortunately, that’s just one minor gripe though, as the rest of the movie is equal parts confident and intriguing.
John Wick’s use of sound is as excellent as its directing and writing. The potent audio helps to bring the set pieces to life as much as the camera does, with a highlight being an especially intense night club shootout that serves as the movie’s most extended action bit. On the big screen especially, everything feels powerful and deadly, and the soundtrack’s reverent tone avoids feeling too bombastic, so it doesn’t disturb the immersive world that the rest of the movie has gone to such lengths to put together.
While it’s not essential by any means, John Wick also gains some even more added power in its IMAX cut, which will make everything hit twice as hard. The camera work isn’t anything that benefits enormously from IMAX, since it’s already great in a standard digital screening, but the soundtrack gets the boost it needs from IMAX. If you want that bit of added punch, the IMAX cut is worth shelling out for, but the movie’s still plenty appealing to take in if you just want to stick to a standard screening.
John Wick finally gives Keanu Reeves his best action movie since The Matrix, and shows that when he’s given good material, Reeves can be a captivating screen presence, even with his seemingly non-existent emotional range. The detached, yet intriguing world of John Wick is perfectly suited to Reeves’ talents, feeling distinctly removed from reality, but not to the point where it becomes fully alienating, as several of Reeves’ recent flicks have been.
Again, if you love action movies, John Wick is required viewing. It’s also required viewing for film enthusiasts, who will find plenty to study and appreciate when it comes to how excellently this movie has been put together. Reeves and his former stunt double in the director’s chair have seen to it that every bit of violent appeal is maximized, and every last corner of the mythology behind John’s world is one that audiences will enjoy touching upon and pondering.
If you’d rather not read into it though, the movie’s expertly implied depth and lore isn’t a requirement. You can just as easily enjoy it as a montage of fantastic kills and action set pieces. No matter how much you’re willing to look into it, John Wick entertains on every level, and is a superb blending of both classic and modern action movie sensibilities.
If even that sounds too classed up for you, then it’s a hell of a great time watching a lot of nameless bad guys getting mowed down by a badass killer, with scads of style and no prisoners taken!
- Keanu Reeves finally put to good use
- Excellent action choreography and style
- Rich, intriguing story mythology throughout
- Finale loses a bit of steam