John Wick (2014)
Directors: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (Directorial debuts).
Starring: Keanu Reeves (The Matrix, Constantine, Speed), Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Alfie Allen (Plastic, Game of Thrones), Adrianne Palicki (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Friday Night Lights, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot, Prey, Battle: Los Angeles), Dean Winters (P.S. I Love You), Ian McShane (Pirates of the Carribbean: On Stranger Tides), John Leguizamo (Chef, Ride Along), Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire, Spider-Man).
Directed by The Matrix stunt doubles Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, John Wick is an unapologetic, neo-noir action thriller.
Keanu Reeves is the titular character John Wick, a former assassin who worked with Russian mobsters. After giving up the murder business, he settles down with his wife to enjoy married life. But mere days after his wife dies, Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) steals John’s car and kills his dog. Big mistake.
Aurelio (John Leguizamo) asks Iosef where he got the car from, and after finding out, swiftly punches him in the face. A sign of things to come. Iosef’s father Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) asks Aurelio why he struck his son, and after Aurelio informs Viggo about his son’s interaction with John Wick, Viggo responds with an appropriate ‘Oh’.
Wick finds himself once again entering the world of assassins, wonderfully built by mythology through throwaway lines and characters. There’s a hotel that caters exclusively for assassins called the Continental, with Lance Reddick as the concierge and Ian McShane as its owner.
Keanu Reeves returns to Hollywood in full form, with his most fearsome role since the Matrix days. Shy of the black glasses and coat, Wick could be a blood-relative of Neo. His baby-faced, life-less attitude is juxtaposed by his commitment to realistic action sequences. Whether it’s gunning down a dozen guards with one clip of a gun, or performing some crazy gun-fu, Reeves is carnal in his performance.
The film’s actions scenes are as much a star as Keanu himself, heavily influenced by several genres like martial arts, Hong Kong action cinema, and to a point, anime. There’s not much in the way of innovation, but the choreography has been practiced over and again, resulting in precise, fluid, and most of all, rewarding fight scenes. There’s a finesse and style to every part of Wick. The way he walks, the way he dresses, the way he kills. There’s a beauty to it, even the way he prepares for an incursion is framed to incite the audience. Director Leitch admits in the commentary “There’s a ton of great shots on the cutting room floor that’s just Keanu Reeves walking in cool environments.”
Accompanying these set pieces is a wonderful, almost zen-like score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, which soon ramps up when the stakes get high and John is on a killing spree.
Derek Kolstad’s simple script could easily fit within a comic book or a video game, but it’s easily inserted within the world of John Wick, where everything appears to be self-aware without breaking any fourth wall. Outside the action, there’s not much to shout about. A couple of pleasant shots of cinematography here and there keep the noir aesthetic interesting.
Alfie Allen’s character Iosef never appears as much of a threat, instead opting as a brat, spoiled with money and power. There’s nothing about his performance that’s particularly noteworthy, instead it’s Nyqvist that sets the villainous tone of the film, despite everyone in this film being a different version of wicked. Though he’s not given much to do in the ways of action until the second half of the film, his delivery of some fairly cheesy lines still manage to contain an element menace. Anyone who can pull off the following line without breaking into hysterics or grinning deserves credit in my mind:
‘Well John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman.’
Joining the cast are actors that you wouldn’t expect in a B movie like this (I say B movie, despite a budget of $20 million). Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Dean Winters; they and more bring legitimacy to this fabled world of assassins that revolve around the Continental hotel. Adrianne Palicki makes an exquisite appearance, and thoroughly sells the idea of this underground, terminator environment. Despite these reputable actors, none of them try to outperform one another, and they all get stuck in to the medium to enjoy it, which reflects on the final output.
Many films in contemporary Hollywood get made to entertain and only entertain. They need you to suspend your disbelief and ‘turn off your brain’ for two hours to watch fist fights and explosions. But John Wick is fun, it’s engaging and entertaining, and never over steps its mark. Although he’s protected by plot armour, John Wick’s mindless violence is enthralling, and by the end of the movie Reeves has been elevated toward Cruise, Schwarzenegger and Stallone status. John Wick creates more world building in one film than most franchises do in three, which is why I’m ravenous for the sequel.
John Wick is the answer to the question “Can a film be carried purely by its main character and action?” A film that reminisces back to the ’80s and ’90s where films like Rambo, Mad Max, and Dirty Harry were focus points of cinema.
So, is Keanu Reeves back?
Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.
Feature image credit: Summit Entertainment