John Wick is a criminal underworld fantasy that merges inventive and crisp action sequences on to heightened world-building that evokes the works of Walter Hill and Sergio Leone, elevating what could have been a generic shoot-em-up into one of the more fully realized genre flicks in recent memory. The premise is simple: recent widower John Wick (embodied by a coldly swaggering Keanu Reeves), is on a bloody mission of revenge after his time grieving for his wife is interrupted by a home invasion that leaves his puppy dead and his car stolen. Co-directed by veteran stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (founders of the 87Eleven Action Design stunt workshop & studio), John Wick reconfigures choice pieces of genre fiction and action movies past to create their own unique contribution to the genre. It’s a remarkably self-confident film whose paper-thin premise and setup actually work in its favor as a tight and functional connective thread stringing together the whole picture.
Modern audiences have been trained to take it for granted that most action movies unfold in a parallel reality of shoot-outs and fiery car chases, even in recent years where a pretense of “realism” is favored over simple “believability.” John Wick’s script, by Derek Kolstad, distinguishes itself by creatively defining clever boundaries of its universe. These trimmings along with the unique approach to staging and shooting action scenes jump the film beyond a hurdle of “homage” and strictly into its own space that is wholly distinct to John Wick.
The titular character is a force of nature, cut from the same cloth of old-school noir, spaghetti-western anti-heroes and more recently, Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” from Drive. Every character in the film either speaks of him in the sort of hushed tones you’d reserve for superstitions or they speak TO him with a similar affectation of respect Don Corleone of The Godfather endears. Wick’s targets know they probably can’t win in a battle against John Wick because he’s “the man you’d send to kill the boogeyman.” Much has been debated with regards to Keanu Reeves’ acting capabilities (or lack thereof) but make no mistake, John Wick IS Keanu Reeves. The actor (who just hit his 50s) still has the same presence he had when he was in his 30s but there’s a self-awareness here that was missing from Keanu’s Point Break/Speed/Matrix-era performances. Much like latter-day Nicolas Cage, even when it comes to potentially cringe-worthy moments or dialogue, Keanu Reeves is able to really sell the scene with conviction with an appropriately straight face you can’t help but be on board. It’s not that John Wick winks at audiences the way the heroes of the Marvel superhero films do, but the performance is heightened in a way that allows the film to keep its tongue in cheek attitude just enough that the relentless violence maintains a tone of pure, exhilarating fun. Reeves’ slightly wooden affect is in on the proceedings as it really allows the larger-than-life world of the movie to bloom around him.
And what a world it is. Before one can talk about the action, you must first get into another aspect where the filmmakers got creative: the world building. It’s a world with an atmosphere that’s one-part David Lynch-inspired fever dream and one-part Quentin Tarantino pulp-criminal haven. The script and production design for the film mixes the familiar imagery of gritty crime stories with pulpy tropes in a way that creates a world slightly broader than our own. The tone and ambience are never too serious and never too cartoony. And everything is presented in a very matter of fact fashion, not delving too deeply into things. There’s a secret history and rich mythos here, just right outside of the frame. The props (gold coins), setting (luxury hotel) and secondary characters (assassins galore) within this world are not given a full exposition and instead our main characters walk into the story with these elements fully formed. It’s the kind of shorthand storytelling that allows audiences to live in that world of globe-trotting “killers” who are competitors and friends, fill in the blanks and let their imagination run free. In an age where every film is seemingly obliged to over-explain everything the simple functionality of John Wick’s world building is as refreshing as its back-to-basics approach to action.
Stahelski and Leitch are stuntmen and second unit directors and John Wick is their first time in the big seat. They have brought with them arguably the most creative blend of sight gags, stunts and fight moves since 2009s The Raid. In other words I have no doubt the action scenes in John Wick will be often imitated in action flicks to come. They gave John Wick a simple, elegant, brutal and minimalist style of action, one that mixes close-quarters martial arts with precise gunplay. It’s a style that marries the heavily stylized martial-arts/shoot-out hybrid “Gun-Kata” from the cult-hit Equilibrium with the somewhat grounded verisimilitude & intensity of Michael Mann’s Heat. More importantly is how the action is shot: not a single handheld/shakey-cam was used. This is the kind of action that genre fans have been clamoring for since filmmakers began emulating the quick-cut queasiness of the Bourne films: in John Wick every moment is clear, fluid, and intelligible. No doubt due to the filmmakers background in stunts and choreography: there is a tremendous amount of care given to the spatial relationship of all people and objects on screen, composition of the frame and the rhythm to the graceful brutality depicted – the proceedings are almost balletic. Here we have a masterful symphony of visceral movement and thrills. That the film even manages to play around with its symbolism and imagery during these beats is no small feat either. Its spectacular action reminds you of a guy with some guns and fists blazing through antagonists is one of the oldest and purest joys of cinema. However the action only works when tied to the story and the characters populating it.
Aside from Keanu as John Wick, the film has Willem DaFoe, as a world-weary former associate of Wick and Ian McShane playing his character with such devilish wit and charm. Michael Nyqvist makes you feel for him as he endows his role with an exhausted humanity. Alfie Allen shows that between this and his role on Game of Thrones makes a believable hateable weasel as he really sells that kind of presence (type casting alert). Adrienne Pallecki has the most fun here as she plays outside of her typecast “good girl” roles. Rounding out the cast are special appearances from Bridget Moynahan and John Leguizamo and many others. These characters may not be deep or complex but they make impressions quickly and lend to the overall expansive feel to the film.
I know better than to tell you that John Wick is one of the better movies of the year, that it’s one of the great action films of the decade and that it’s a movie I cannot wait to revisit again and again at home or with friends – but here I am doing it. John Wick is unstoppably good, it is the sort of viciously fun action movie people imagine in their heads when they play with squirt-guns or action figures or when a particularly cool song comes on their headphones and they strut down the street like the world’s biggest badass. Everything from Keanu’s effortless swagger, the practical stunt & choreography showcase and the world in which these things take place in oozes with the kind of effortless “cool” many genre pictures reach for. It’s not deep, complex or striving to be “relevant” to larger life issues but John Wick, like the titular protagonist, is just so good at the things it actually DOES that it can’t help but demand a sense of respect.