David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Derek Kolstad (screenplay)
Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen
Ocober 24th, 2014 (Theatrical)
An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.
Keanu Reeves is back in fighting form in the violent, stylish, smartly made (if a bit flawed), and most of all fun John Wick. At its core, John Wick is a typical revenge story kicked off by the loss of a loved one. But right off the bat the story is twisted and turned so that it does not feel stale or get stuck in the typical issues of the genre. While it has some definite issues of its own, they certainly don’t come from how the film is composed. Everything from the way the story is told, to the story itself, to the performances, to the stylized violence – the film does more than enough to elevate itself over its faults to be a must-see action movie.
This is going to seem like a big spoiler, but if you have heard anything about the movie you probably already know it, not to mention the fact that it only spoils the first 10 minutes of the movie at most. With that said, the decision to have John Wick’s dog die to kick off the events of the film was a great one. Going into the movie I already heard the “Jack Wick is about Keanu Reeves murdering everyone because someone killing his puppy” jokes and was worried it would be handled in a campy and manipulative way. But the way in which it was implemented into the story was absolutely brilliant.
Without spoiling too much more, Iosef Tarasov (played by Alfie Allen) wants to steal John Wick’s car and ends up invading his home with a small group in the middle of night. Before knocking Wick out and finding the car keys, Tarasov kills Wick’s beloved dog that his wife left him when she died, and places it next to Wick’s unconscious body so it’s the first thing he sees when he wakes up. The scene is dark, properly toned down and the death really hits home. The lack of compassion that Tarasov and his crew show is enough to make anyone’s blood boil and it certainly does so for Wick. From there the story kicks off into a near non-stop frenzy of kickassness.
John Wick could have easily skipped the whole dog bit and made the film about avenging his dead wife. It’s been done before several times in revenge films and I’m sure it would have worked here. The main problem with that method is, with a human death, a film needs to take a large amount of time and dedicate it to showing how the main protagonist deals with the death. John would have had to see his wife die, been shown at the funeral grieving the death, finding out who killed his wife and then finally, 20-30 minutes and several flashbacks meant to build a character who is dead later, start going on a killing spree.
By having his wife die of natural causes and arranging to have a dog delivered after her death, which eventually gets killed off, allows the film gets to skip all that. Not only is a dog’s death relatable to almost everyone – not just those who are married or have lost a loved one – but it lets us see a different side of the main character instead of bogging the audience down with just how much he loved his wife. There’s no need to establish an entire other character that does not appear anywhere else in the film. The dog was John’s last vestige of his wife, so the same emotions that would be tied to her dying are now with the dog – which is a much simpler character to kill off. It’s a dog dying: nothing needs to be built up outside of a couple short scenes of Keanu clearly getting attached to the animal to get the audience on board. Frankly, the whole thing was brilliant and set the story off on a good note.
Once Iosef tries to have the car’s plates and tags wiped so he can own the vehicle scott free, the chop shop owner recognizes it as John Wick’s car and demands he leaves. This reaction is the first glimpse we get into the kind of reputation that John Wick has in this world, and it eventually carries over when Iosef informs his father Viggo (played wonderfully by Michael Nyquist) just what he’s done. Iosef thinks he just stole some no-name’s car but Viggo, having been an associate of Wick’s in the past, knows better. He goes on a monologue about just how dangerous Wick is, while at the same time the footage is interlaced with Wick breaking open his old gun safe as he prepares to go all Rambo up in here.
The monologue and the way it is shot is nice enough, but it drags on far too long. The information it is trying to get across does so within the first few lines, but it just keeps going and essentially repeating the same thing. After that, we also have to see John Wick getting dressed and ready to get back into action. Again, the way it was shot is fine, but there’s no reason that little bit could not also have been shown while Viggo was talking. For such an otherwise well paced film, this short sequence towards the end of the first act was a definite blemish, and it dragged down the film well into the second act until it finally started to pick back up once John Wick begins taking down everyone in his path to avenge his puppy and kill Iosef once and for all.
From here on out the story takes a major backseat to the action, and it’s done fantastically. The film is directed by a couple of stunt coordinator legends, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, and it shows in every scene. Fights are smooth yet remains realistic, every punch and gunshot has a solid feel to it, and the sequences are always engaging.
Long shots and lack of quick cuts are the mark of good stunt coordination and this movie has it in spades. A lot of films need to cut in and out of action when when they’re dealing actors such as a muscle bound Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Channing Tatum fumbling through action sequences, but with an actor as good as Keanue Reeves and competent stunt coordinators at the helm you can let the action roll for a satisfying amount of time; avoiding nauseating shaky cam and quick cuts in the process and giving the entire experience a satisfying feel.
There honestly is not a ton of variety in the combat, as Wick has a signature way of killing and boy does he love repeating it, but I never got bored of watching it. I’d be interested to see how much of Keanu Reeve’s stunts were done by a double, fast-forwarding or other manipulation because he looked extremely fast and agile. There were times that his movements were almost unnatural, but never unbelievable. If he indeed did all, or most of, his own stunts – bravo you 50-year-old stallion, you.
Another story element I really enjoyed was the fact that John Wick was set up as a terrifying bad ass, and he stayed a terrifying bad ass. There was no need to force an arc on his character and have him fail during the first couple of fights to let us watch him begin to succeed. John Wick is already an established assassin, and the film set that up and let us enjoy watching him do what he does best. Overall the story was tight, didn’t veer to much from what it wanted to be, and stayed out of the way when it needed to. It wasn’t world changing or memorable by any means, but it was not distracting in any way and, especially in a revenge film like this, that’s all you can ask of it.
Outside of near-flawless combat, there were a couple issues I had with how the film was shot. Particularly in the earlier scenes, there was an overbearing amount of coloration. Certain scenes were flooded with a specific color or random mix of colors, but there didn’t appear to be a real artistic purpose for it. It felt like someone was just tweaked some color sliders, landed on a specific mix, decided it looked cool, and called it a day. Outside of the bar scenes where having a dominating red or blue made sense with the overhead flood lights, the movie would have really benefited from more subtle editing and more focus on what’s actually happening on screen. The violence and action was stylish enough without needing ugly colors blasted into the audiences faces.
Sound design was absolutely on point. This review is after my first theater watch so I’ll definitely want to re-watch to confirm this, but from what I can remember the music would never start until the action got under way. A lot of times, films will use music as a way to set the mood and let the action flow into it, but John Wick did just the opposite. Keanu would be walking or otherwise not engaged in any kind of fight, then suddenly fists or gunshots would be flying. It wasn’t until a couple punches in that the music would start, letting you really sink your teeth into the action until the electric soundtrack would come in and aid the fighting along. It’s a small touch that went a long way in making sure the fantastic fight sequences were the star of the show, and not the soundtrack (as great of a soundtrack as it was).
There were a couple moments of clichéd action movie punch and gun noises, but not to a distracting degree. Even at it’s corniest, the sound design did a great job of adding to the weight of every punch and gunshot.
Some atrociously delivered lines during slow moments aside, I thought Keanu Reeves did pretty great and John Wick felt like the perfect fit for him. He has a really odd range when it comes to how believable he is able to make his performances. When he needs to be on either extreme end of the spectrum – either intensely angry or intensely sad – he does a great job and can deliver some believable lines. But the closer he gets to the center or more neutral emotions, the weirder and less believable his performances become. Goofy performances like that work great in films such as Bill & Ted and The Matrix to an extent, but it absolutely took me out of John Wick every time he had to act like a normal even-keel human being.
The film does a decent enough of job of hiding this by having all the exposition that would normally be his to deliver instead told by other supporting characters as narration while showing Keanu kicking some ass, but when he is required to act in slower scenes it just falls absolutely flat. The opening scene with Willem Dafoe was especially painful.
Other performances in the film were generally pretty good. This is one of the rare times I can think of a movie where Willem Dafoe was anything other than a creepy uncle type of character, but he did a great job of just being another non-creepy assassin in John Wick. Alfie Allen, as anyone who watches Game of Thrones knows, excels at being an unbearable prick and he nails it in this movie as Iosef. The only real performance that I felt was overwhelmingly bad was, unfortunately, the only female character that had any presence in the film, Adrianne Palicki. Everything about her character, from the writing to her interpretation of it, was generic, corny, and just did not fit with the others whatsoever. The writers went a long way to establish a believable society of assassins, but her character spat all over that and felt like a B-movie parody of what the rest of the fleshed out characters were.
Overall, I really enjoyed John Wick and, despite what some are going to consider a “low” score, this is one of my favorite movies I’ve seen this year. Some definite flaws but the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to just how fun and well-made the majority of the movie is. Keanu Reeves is absolutely back to form despite his age, and you will not regret spending your time or money watching him kick, punch, shoot, stab, and otherwise mangle endless waves of nameless thugs.