John Wick (2014)
Dirs: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Do you like Keanu Reeves? Do you like him in full-on action mode, kicking all sorts of ass in a hyper-stylized revenge pic? Do you like movies that create a fully formed world and populate it with insane avatars of violence, all portrayed by well known character actors? Does the idea of a downtown New York hotel that caters exclusively to world class assassins – with its own hierarchy and internal rules – sound cool to you? If you answered yes to any of the above, then John Wick‘s for you. Or at least it’s for your inner 13-year-old that still thrills at seeing something novel and fun. In fact, I imagine most who see an ad for John Wick (with the immortal tagline “Don’t set him off!”) know instantly if this movie’s for them. John Wick‘s not simple schlock though – it’s a sincere piece of genre filmmaking that’s fresh and bold. Mostly riveting, it builds a complete world around Reeves’ John Wick and mixes the balletic gunplay of the little seen Christian Bale sci-fi actioner Equilibrium with the confidence and gonzo violence of the inimitable Jason Statham vehicle Crank.
It starts simply enough. John Wick’s grieving his late wife, lost to an unnamed disease, when he gets a knock on his door. A wet-nosed puppy is delivered – a final gift from his deceased wife so that John wouldn’t be alone (his muscle car doesn’t count). These quiet, mournful scenes sound maudlin but are actually done well, serving as the calm before the storm while lulling the audience into a false sense of security. The idyll is shattered by Iosef (Game of Throne‘s Alfie Allen), a snivelling Russian gangster who makes the grave error of stealing John’s ride and killing his dog. Spoken of in hushed whispers, John is a legend in the underworld and now (obviously) his past has come back to haunt him, leaving him with no choice but to shoot a lot (so many) bad guys in the face. There’s an odd tone struck here, humourous yet totally straight-faced. Everyone involved seemed to have committed to this movie and the sincerity works in its favour. When mob boss Viggo (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo‘s Michael Nyqvist) stares into a fire and calls John Wick The Boogeyman, it’s both funny and completely believable in context.
Viggo turns out to be the father of the doomed Iosef and to protect his son he reluctantly sends a kill squad after John, knowing full well that many bodies will fall before the night is through. The first of many great actions sequences is a raid on John’s house by these black suited thugs and it’s a sight to behold. Reeves hasn’t lost a step at nearly 50 and the action is brutal, inventive, and gloriously cool. The camera is thankfully steady for the most part and there’s always a clear sense of geography and weight to what’s going on. It’s like an 80’s action movie – with all the wanton violence and quippy one-liners that implies – that’s been rebooted for a new millennium by incorporating the best of what’s come since (sustained and breathless pacing, John Woo-influenced gunplay, more detailed fight choreography) while discarding the worst (shaky cams, Michael Bay-style quick cuts, over-reliance on CGI). There’s even a Commando reference (“You don’t need a gun John!”) prior to the climactic fist fight. It’s all very satisfying in a meat and potatoes kind of way.
The best action sequence is a nightclub shootout that resembles Tom Cruise’s character from Collateral let loose in the excessive and unending violence of The Raid. That scene is bursting with energy and numerous headshots and while the rest of the film can’t match that high point in terms of action, it still gets by on its considerable charm and style. For examples look no further than: Willem Dafoe as a rival assassin turned enemy, not one but TWO The Wire alums (Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters) showing up as stone-faced badasses, Adrianne Palicki as a seductive femme fatale with a key role, and even Ian McShane (Deadwood‘s immortal Al Swaerengen himself) as a shadowy underworld boss. There’s even more recognizable faces and half the fun is seeing them pop up in bit parts to either die a quick death or survive for a possible sequel.
It’s pulpy and fun, with a cleaning service that removes dead bodies (“I need a reservation for 12”) and quotable lines galore (Reeves gets to gnash his teeth and shout “I’m thinking I’m back!”, though it’s not as memorable as Man of Tai Chi‘s “You owe me a life!”). Even if the latter half is mostly falling action and the pace flags at times, it’s a mostly lean movie that knows enough to get in and out fast, leaving ’em wanting more. In all it’s an original nuts and bolts action pic with enough panache and humour to qualify as a win. We don’t get enough of those at the best of times and so it should be celebrated accordingly. And yeah, Keanu’s back.