John Wick excels, unapologetically, at what it seeks to be: a fun, pulpy, violent B-movie action romp, built upon a cool mythology within a compelling Noir world.
John Wick transports us into the underworld that exists beneath society – a world that legendary hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) thought he escaped when he retired to a happy life with his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). However, when Helen falls victim to cancer John’s happy world begins to collapse – only to be bolstered by the introduction of a little puppy, a final gift from his wife to help him keep in touch with his softer, more humane side.
Time likely would’ve healed all if not for the arrogance and brutality of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), a young Russian mob prince who happens upon John and cruelly snuffs out the last vestige of Helen’s love. Of course, poor Iosef has no idea whom he has wronged; no idea about John’s ties to the Tarasov family or the biblical repercussions of messing with the legend. But Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) knows all too well what kind of maelstrom of death is coming – and he makes any and all preparations possible to bring John Wick down.
The product of newcomer writer Derek Kolstad - and a reunion between Keanu Reeves and his stunt men collaborators-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (The Matrix Trilogy) - John Wick excels, unapologetically, at what it seeks to be: a fun, pulpy, violent B-movie action romp, built upon a cool mythology within a compelling Noir world.
Kolstad’s script for the film is a pleasantly surprising comic book-style bit of pulp fun that never takes itself too seriously, and delights in creating an intriguing underworld sandbox for the characters to play in. From a system of currency, to coded language and an established mythology (dominated by the legend of John Wick), exploring the world of high-powered mobsters, assassins, vixens – and all the middlemen in between – is half the fun of the film. As for the actual narrative: it’s blessedly simplistic and unsophisticated, with no illusions of grandeur: John is wronged, someone has to pay, and anyone who gets in the way as he makes his odyssey of vengeance ends up in a body bag. Simple.
Again, Kolstad’s strength is in his total self-awareness about the hokeyness of the material. Instead of trying to ground his larger-than-life hero in “realism,” he fully embraces and has fun with the over-the-top action fantasy, crafting great humor out of John Wick’s reputation as a badass, and people’s reactions to his return (or even mere mention of his name). While the action also delivers, it’s this almost satirical riff on the old Clint Eastwood tough-guy archetype that is probably the most enjoyable aspect of the film.
…That’s not to say that directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are slacking when it comes to creating both the visual and physical dimensions of the film – because they most certainly are not. With so many famous movies on their respective stuntman resumes (The Matrix Trilogy, Bourne Trilogy, 300, Fight Club, Ninja Assassin, Jumper, V for Vendetta - to name a few…) it’s no surprise that the pair are able to put together some of the slickest action sequences seen in the post-Raid: Redemption era – certainly a step up from the usual Hollywood action fare.
While the action may not be that revolutionary or inventive, it is very well executed, slick and polished in design. With his “Gun-fu” fight style, John Wick is almost hilariously efficient as a whirlwind of death and destruction – which admittedly lowers the stakes of each battle, as the outcome is almost never in question. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to watch. When the violence and action isn’t taking place, the directorial style isn’t nearly as proficient; however, some good production and set design – plus some nice cinematography – help keep the eye reasonably satisfied whenever things slow down.
Keanu Reeves gives his best performance in years – probably due to the fact that most of what is required from him is the stilted emotion of a stoic killer, or a litany of martial arts acrobatics that prove he hasn’t lost too many steps since his Matrix days. The early dramatic bits come off as cheesy as one may expect, but seeing the actor’s trademark wooden demeanor juxtaposed to the insatiable energy of an adorable little puppy is pretty effective (smart pairing, there).
The other standout in the film is Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible 4, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who gives an unexpectedly scary, comedic and quirky performance as Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov. Nyqvist can make savagely beating a man to death into an off-kilter black comedy moment - and his abilities are refined enough for the directors to entrust several scenes to him, sometimes just reacting things alone onscreen. And it’s all great to watch. Alfie Allen, on the other hand, comes off more like a loose mimic of his Game of Thrones petulant brat character, Theon Greyjoy, and is not all that compelling as a villain (more of a MacGuffin, really). Thankfully, Nyqvist is there to provide the necessary anchorage.
Many other familiar faces pop up for some fun supporting or bit roles. John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick (Fringe), Dean Winters (Law & Order: SVU) and Ian McShane (Deadwood) all bring authenticity to various underworld players who help flesh out this strange world; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and G.I. Joe 2 actress Adrianne Palicki continues to prove herself as a capable action star; while even the bit roles of John Wick’s “friends” are handed to talented vets like Willem Dafoe and Clarke Peters (The Wire). On the whole, this is a cast who is above the material – but they all seem to jump in and have fun with it, and that fun translates to the screen.
In the end, John Wick is a silly, violent, action fantasy that fully entertains as such. This is not awards-worthy cinema, nor does it aspire to be; it’s a fun, mindless, action movie experience that manages to surprise with richness of world-building and mythos. By the end, the film earns more franchise potential than many other properties hoping to build empires before they can even get out of the gate. For Reeves this is another big win and iconic character on his resume – one that many will likely leave the theater hoping to see kick ass and takes names again in the future.
John Wick is now in theaters. It is 101 minutes long and is Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use.