John Wick marks the explosive directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two veteran stunt actors/choreographers each with decades of experience under their belt; and what they deliver here is truly a sight to behold. Keanu Reeves’ latest pulls no punches and is unashamedly ridiculous – a flawlessly executed, over-the-top revenge thriller that’s as stylish as it is brutal.
The introductory shot of the film sets the tone of what’s to come perfectly as the title character writhes out of a crashed SUV, bloodied and battered, and collapses by the roadside, managing to pull out his smartphone to view a video of his late wife one more time. This seamlessly gives way to a quick series of flashbacks of John Wick and his wife, highlighting moments from their short time together before she succumbed to illness. Her dying gift to John is a puppy that is delivered to his doorstep following her funeral, ensuring that he could find some comfort without having to mourn alone. It’s a bit of a cliché and trite setup, but the simple narrative works so well here, specifically because it doesn’t wear out its welcome while rather brilliantly presenting Wick to the audience at his most vulnerable.
After he has a chance encounter with a group of Russian thugs at a gas station while filling up his beloved 1969 Mustang, the film escalates at a breakneck pace. John is beaten mercilessly and his dog is murdered as he watches after he refuses to sell his car to Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the entitled son of a Russian mob kingpin (played by Lichael Nyquist). It’s not until those thugs are turned away by a chop shop owner who recognizes the car that we actually start to understand who John Wick is and why he lives a secluded life. As it turns out, prior to his retirement to live in peace with his new bride, Wick was the most revered, talented hit man in the business and worked for Viggo, the mob boss whose son had just pushed him over the edge. As Wick begins preparations to track down the man that took away his last meaningful possessions, Viggo vainly tries to protect his family from the coming onslaught that’s been pointed their way from a force he’s all too familiar with.
This is all established quite early on in the film. What follows is one of the most entertaining and most violent action spectacles ever committed to film. Beginning with a twelve-man hit squad sent to John’s home in a pre-emptive strike, Wick dispatches every adversary he encounters with superhuman precision and looks damn cool while doing it. With a mix of gunplay and a several styles of hand-to-hand combat, the fight sequences are beyond intense and somehow feel like something you’ve never quite seen before. The camera is constantly up close and in the thick of the action with the directors favoring shots that make the audience feel the weight of every impact and witness the effect of each bullet. As John is touted as a skilled assassin, he leaves no question as to whether each villain he finds himself up against could have survived the encounter. Virtually every single man Wick takes on will be shot or stabbed through the head. It almost turns into a running gag throughout the move as even men you have been shot repeatedly and would have no chance of pulling through still get the coup de grace. At one point, John punches a foe in order to stun/disable him just long enough to give him time to carefully load a new magazine and shoot him in the face. And you want to stand up and cheer every time it happens because, frankly, you hate these villains. They killed an adorable puppy and that’s all the background you need to get behind the murderous rampage playing out on screen. After enduring so many comic book films where the flimsiest, blandest bad-guys are touted to be the most evil force in the cosmos based on nothing other than a silly make-up job (ahem, Guardians of the Galaxy), it’s awesome to see that the creative force behind this film gets it – actions speak louder than words and, if you want an audience to rally behind the hero, they need a reason to do so.
But it’s not just the blood-drenched action sequences, which will never carry a full-length feature on their own. John Wick, as a film, works because of the world created for these characters to interact in. As John is pulled further into his old ways, the audience is subject to the underlying infrastructure of the criminal network in which he operates. Making his rounds with old contacts, acquaintances, and colleagues, everyone knows and respects the name John Wick. He’s regarded as legendary by both peers and enemies and, as an extension, by the viewers themselves. Even with only the briefest, most concise lines of dialogue, Wick simply oozes larger-than-life coolness as he conducts his business within a community that knows all too well exactly what he’s capable of.
Visually, nearly every scene in the film is either tinted with an icy blue tone or burning with intense yellows. The contrasting palette shifts don’t seem to hold any significance to the story or follow specific characters like in Soderbergh’s Traffic, but simply adds a stylish flair to an already impeccably-shot piece, spanning a variety of seedy venues. Wick pursues his targets through hotel rooms, bath houses, dance halls, and even a church, leaving a tremendous body count in his wake. The supporting cast of Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki also add to the suspense due to their ambiguous loyalties but Reeves himself seemed tailor made for the role. Interestingly enough, although being a rather silly, insanely violent action film, Keanu plays the sympathetic, vengeful hit man as is its coming from a very real place. This may very well be the best performance of his career thus far.
I went into John Wick with the lowest of expectations and walked out having seen one of the most finely-made popcorn action movies of the last decade. Throughout the film there were audible gasps and cheers from the crowd, almost as an uncontrollable reaction to the excess happening on screen. From the ludicrous, almost ‘80’s-style one-liners, to the campy script, to frequent bits of dark comic relief, to the crazy (and near-constant) bone-crunching fight scenes, the film is way more fun than anyone could have given it credit for and destined to become a genre staple.