A brutally efficient and elegant return to the world of action for Keanu Reeves and an impressive, confident directorial début for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, John Wick is a reminder that the action genre need not be left to the mercy of soulless, shaky-cam, rapidly edited, PG-13 pretenders. My review of John Wick after the jump.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a man who’s just lost his beloved wife to cancer. Bereft and aimless, his salvation arrives in the form of Daisy, a beagle puppy delivered to his door one night. A final gift from his wife who didn’t want her other half to grieve alone, Daisy’s life is horribly snuffed out when gangsters break into Wick’s house to steal his car. Robbed of the last tie to his once happy life, an enraged Wick resumes his former identity as the most feared hitman in New York in order to seek retribution.
John Wick is a film that really shouldn’t have worked. It features first-time directors and a plot which could be summed up on half a square of toilet paper. A cursory glance at the script would reveal a long list of action movie clichés. We’re talking about a sharply attired, laconic hitman/assassin/whatever with nothing to lose effortlessly mowing down hordes of baddies with enough fire-power to make Charlton Heston blush. Oh, and most of the villains speak in Russian accents.
To its credit, though John Wick spends only a scant few minutes setting up our protagonist’s motivation for the inevitable orgy of violence, this movie does a better job than most at making us give a damn. In a scene near the beginning of the film when he receives the puppy and reads his wife’s final accompanying letter, Reeves does a great job selling the character’s grief as he bursts into tears. It’s little moments like this that really give this movie at least some semblance of a soul. And later when a bound, wounded Wick declares his hatred of the men who took all that he had left to remember his wife, Reeves speaks in an enraged growl which is like nothing heard I’ve from him in the past. Though his delivery sounds a touch awkward in this scene, he made me really believe in the pain and rage his character was feeling at that moment.
This is all part of the strange appeal of Keanu Reeves. Though a somewhat limited actor, his detached, strangely likeable demeanour combined with a lithe, elegant physicality ensures that he commands the screen whenever the camera is on him. He absolutely knocks it out of the park in the action scenes. John Wick is pretty much a spinning tornado of death, effortlessly ducking and weaving around enemies while disarming, shooting and stabbing them with the cool precision that only a seemingly immortal Canadian actor can muster. Yes, getting five headshots in a row is ludicrous, but the choreography is giddily frenetic, gritty, fun, and perhaps most importantly, somehow plausible. Try comparing the choreography in this movie to any scenes in The Dark Knight Rises where Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Anne Hathaway neutralise someone twice their size and don’t look remotely convincing while doing it. Years spent working on The Matrix Trilogy perfectly primed both Reeves and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch for this movie. As Reeve’s former stunt double on that renowned trilogy, Stahelski clearly knows how to get the best out of his leading man on the action front.
It’s also not just the Keanu Reeves Show, thankfully. John Wick is populated by many talented actors, many of whom turn up for supporting roles that last a scene or two before stepping back into the shadows. But almost all of them manage to be memorable thanks to some sharp performances, particularly Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and John Leguizamo. It was also nice to spot Matrix Reloaded veterans Daniel Bernhardt and Randall Duk Kim who played Agent Johnson and the Keymaker respectively in that 2003 film. But special mention must go to Michael Nyqvist as Viggo Tarasov. The feared Russian gangster whose son was behind the theft that finally broke John Wick, Viggo is a well-rounded, charismatic, and funny villain thanks to Nyqvist, who manages to turn a stock character into one that’s actually interesting to watch.
John Wick is also visually arresting. New York at night is beautifully captured by crisp digital photography and, in a well-shot confrontation at a night club, is evocative of Michael Mann’s work in a similar scene in Collateral. But perhaps the most stylish moment comes in a bathhouse bathed in blue light as John Wick edges towards his target. The song ‘Think’ by Kaleida adds a cool, ethereal feel to the scene which really makes it stand out. Action scenes are smoothly shot and it’s always nice to be able to clearly see all the action going on in the frame.
Simply put, John Wick is a film which is fully cognisant of its status as a no-frills action movie. It’s a film that delivers hard-hitting, good, old-fashioned, revenge-based action without becoming mired in convolution for the sake of it. For example, a lesser movie would have tried to shoe-horn in some lame twist or try to link back the events of the film to some conspiracy. It’s not perfect, though, because at the end of the day, it’s a movie where Keanu Reeves shoots guys in the face for 101 minutes and you either suspend your disbelief or you don’t. But the fact that this film’s reach doesn’t try to exceed its grasp is a testament to the director’s restraint and intelligence and hints at a bright future ahead of him. As always, Keanu Reeves does his thing and he does it well, haters be damned. Excellent!
By Johnson Hii
Director: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Writer(s): Derek Kolstad (screenplay)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 101 minutes
Release date(s): USA: October 24 2014; Australia: October 30 2014; New Zealand: November 27 2014