John Wick wasn’t created by rocket scientists, nor does it particularly need to be. The same crowd that got a kick out of films like The Raid or Hard Target – which includes myself – will find plenty to love in this gorgeously shot and unapologetically simple tale of one man out for revenge.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his old life as the most notorious and sought after hitman in New York (once known as The Boogeyman) for the woman he loved. He settled down with the woman he loved, got a sweet looking GTO to get his aggressions out when he had to, and moved to Northern New Jersey. When his wife passes away after a battle with illness, John finds she has sent him a cute puppy to let him know that he’s still loved and that he’s still capable of loving back. Unfortunately for John, the entitled punk son of a Russian mob boss (Alfie Allen) wants to take John’s car, breaking into his home, beating John down with the help of some thugs, and killing the puppy in the process. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in literally every piece of advertising for the film.) Now with everything he has loved in his life gone or destroyed, John comes out of retirement to take down anyone who gets in the way of his justice and path back to becoming a peaceful man.
Of course Keanu Reeves is going to play John Wick. Is there any other human being alive today that would be the most obvious choice to play a stylish, single minded badass capable of gun-fu? The film really rides on casting someone who can be sympathetic, physical, smooth, enraged, and yet curiously blank all at the same time. It’s almost the role Reeves was born to play, and he’s making the absolute most of it, bringing a real sense of immediacy to the role. The story is as simple as one of the film’s numerous bullets to the skull, but Keanu makes all of it hold together. In a lot of ways, John Wick succeeds where the similarly minded Reeves starring Constantine stumbled.
Long time stuntmen and action choreographers turned first time feature directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski also build a world that’s as complex and shadowy as the man that moves within it. Not a film where Wick is forced into moving from place to place in search of his final target, Leitch and Stahelski create only a small handful of settings to make sure that the action within them remains contained, yet kinetic. There’s the inclusion of a hotel called The Continental, a place where various underworld types can eat, sleep, and drink without fear of their cover being blown and a strict adherence to a “no killing on the premesis” philosophy. There’s a brawl in a nightclub. There’s a car chase. There’s the final showdown between John and his former boss/father of the kid who started this (Michael Nyqvist). And that’s basically it. There’s no more or less, but there’s an effort being made within this simplicity to tell the audience just enough about the side character to make them wish they knew more about John and the people around him.
These side characters float in and out of the world, making impacts in as little as a single scene in some cases. Outside of the glorious scenery chewing being done by Allen and Nyqvist (who delivers a showstopping speech to fill in Wick’s backstory), there are memorable turns from Adrianne Palicki as the assassin most willing to take John out for a large sum of money, Willem Dafoe as a former friend and business associate, Ian McShane as the loquacious owner of The Continental, and John Leguizamo as a surprisingly level headed chop shop proprietor. It gives the film an air of prestige to have such great actors attached to it.
That prestige factor can go both ways, though. If the material is handled in too lowbrow of a fashion, John Wick would be indistinguishable from the dearth of Tarantino knock-offs that got released in the mid-to-late 90s. Too slick, and it becomes a car commercial. Leitch and Stahlski accomplish a level best, blending long take Richard Deakins inspired cinematography – courtesy of Jonathan Sela – and gritty fight sequences and shootouts. It’s brilliantly shot; probably the best photographed action film of the decade thus far unless we’re counting Skyfall. But within those gorgeous shots, there’s a rough edge to the action. These are professional killers trying to kill other professionals. Every fight or duel shows a distinct thought process. It would take a true cynic to dismiss John Wick as something beholden to a modern video game mentality. This isn’t a world where a director or a viewer pushes a button and something happens. This is a film where people make mistakes, suffer for them, and climb back with an almost impossible to artificially replicate sense of timing.
John Wick is a perfect example of a dumb movie done in the smartest way possible. It’s not going to raise any bars for storytelling or even for the genre itself, but it’s going to push the goal markers just a bit further than people will realize. Most importantly, it’s fun, effective, exciting, knowingly funny, and it never outstays its welcome. It’s the best action movie of the year by far.