2014 - 101 minutes
Directed by: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Dean Winters, Willem Dafoe, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo
Keanu Reeves is certainly no action movie neophyte; after all, he fought as Neo in the phenomenon that was The Matrix. Thankfully, that dubious punnery is not on par with the quality of the 50-year-old’s latest combat extravaganza John Wick, which gives the perpetually chilled-out star an edge we have haven’t seen before. Brutal and bloody, the revenge tale is stuffed to the gills with guns and gangsters and certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but does what it does very well. It also operates in a highly stylized world that actually feels material and mixes the pandemonium with a playfulness that adds to the fun.
Reeves is the titular John Wick, one of those mythical movie creations that was the best hitman/enforcer/overall badass who got out of the game to marry the beautiful Helen (Bridget Moynahan). As his former associate and Russian heavy Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) puts it, “He’s not the boogeyman, he’s the man you send to kill the boogeyman.”
Of course, as is a necessity in revenge actioners, just when the guy thinks he’s out, he’s gonna get pulled back in. Helen dies of illness, but arranged for John to receive a puppy so that he wouldn’t have to grieve alone. Viggo’s hotheaded son Iosef (Alfie Allen) makes the mistake of not recognizing Wick during a chance encounter and coordinates a home invasion to steal his ’69 Mustang. The siege leaves Wick bloodied and his dog dead. Big mistake. Wick vows revenge and Viggo puts a contact on his former associate’s head as a preemptive strike. Bullets and punches begin to fly.
Yes, John Wick is about a man that goes on a rampage after the death of his dog, but it makes perfect sense in the moment. Wick is a wounded animal with no recourse but to strike with the cache of weapons buried under the concrete basement in his cold contemporary home. It’s also an appropriate piece of kitsch that dovetails with the outrageousness of the mobster universe that exists right under our noses. There’s a hotel where hitmen and women convene that has a strict “no-murdering-on-the-premises” rule. The scamps pay for everything – including a body disposal technician – with gold coins.
The action is as gloriously off-kilter as the comedy. That is, it feels unconventional because it doesn’t utilize overused techniques like shaky-cam or speed-ramping. John Wick moves straight ahead guns a’ blazin’ and co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski follow right along, capturing everything with long takes that never look away. The art of gun fu is on full display with close-up fisticuffs punctuated by devastating kill shots. Even during pauses there’s a kinetic energy in the frame –Reeves has a re-loading moment at a critical juncture that’s an all-timer.
Reeves slides comfortably into Wick’s black suit and his subdued savagery. There are no “whoas” or “I know kung fus,” to go along with his surfer-dude drawl, only an economic use of necessary snarls and orders. His adversaries and associates each add spice of their own. Nyqvist is able to be hilarious while being a bastard; Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe and John Leguizamo create colorful characters without crossing over into satire or camp. And what’s a fun bit of mayhem without the Allstate mayhem guy himself (Dean Winters) as a mobster lackey?
The film does get a bit repetitive, especially during two or three false endings and a climax that doesn’t outshine any of the other handful of action set pieces. The cheekiness borders overload when we hit the point of “just when he thinks he’s out again, he gets pulled back in again,” but at least nothing that’s repeated is dull. John Wick is a rare action treat that manages to feel like a throwback and a breath of fresh, bloody air blown into the genre at the same time.