John Wick opens with our title character (Keanu Reeves) mourning his wife’s death following a lingering illness. He overtaken by grief (and looks slightly like the sad Keanu meme that nearly broke the internet). However, his wife knew this would happen, so she sent him a puppy that would help him heal and rediscover life. It could almost be the setup for a darker tinged, starkly shot Marley & Me. However, John Wick takes a grim, hard left turn when John Wick (the movie almost always refers to him by his full name & it’s an awesome name, so why wouldn’t you?) meets a crew of Russian gangsters led by the almost compulsively killable Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones). He wants John Wick’s car, but Wick is disinclined to acquiesce. As reprobation, John Wick’s house is ransacked, his car is stolen, and his beloved dog is murdered. It seems only a matter of time that a man whose last name is synonymous with the word “fuse” is destined to explode. You see, John Wick isn’t just a man with an amazingly expensive, window-pane covered house, a great car, and an adorable beagle puppy, he’s a former assassin who earned his retirement by accomplishing an almost Herculean task that left a pile of bodies at its completion. He’s not a boogeyman. He’s who the boogeyman fears is lurking in the dark.
Picking up the battered pieces of his second chance at life, John Wick buries his dog and unearths his arsenal, descending back into an underworld in which assassins all frequent the same luxury hotel, with an on-staff laundry service and doctor to stitch up and medicate injuries, and a New York exclusively composed of mob bosses and hit men. The problem is Alfie Allen is the son of John Wick’s former boss, played with scenery-chewing relish by Michael Nyqvist. Nyqvist pretty much writes off his son as a corpse walking, but does feel obligated to put out a contract on John Wick’s head in a half-hearted attempt to save him from the spray of bullets stamped with his name. Working various sides of the assassin equation are Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe, and Ian McShane, all reveling in their flashy, B-movie trappings. What follows is, of course, glorious, bullet-ridden carnage
I’ve always maintained I’m not an action film fan, with a few exceptions. Recent films starring Gerard Butler, Jason Statham, and Liam Neeson only served to back up my stance. However, watching John Wick finally made me realize that it’s not that I don’t like the genre, it’s that I struggle to get behind lazy, tired retreads of previously established clichés. I also have issues with films that feature hyper-reality blanketed in the real world. Liam Neeson’s a good man forced to bad things, and that’s a plot synopsis that could be used with multiple action films. They try to exist in the real world and as a result are laughably problematic. John Wick’s New York doesn’t even attempt to have the illusion of reality. There’s no way anyone could mistake it for a film set in the real world. It’s about New York in the same way Peter Pan is about air travel. It revels in a stylized environment in which churches are fronts for mob crime and the streets are only populated by those blessed by dead-eyed aim (unless they’re shooting at John Wick). There’s barely a character who’s not connected to the criminal underworld, which eliminates the threat of murdering innocent bystanders. It’s not a New York I’d want to visit, but I’d love to see another film from this director set there.
Reeves is a performer often accused of being so wooden he could be used to build the floor of a log cabin, but here his grim, resolute countenance benefits the film. He’s the stoic, unstoppable object encountering all too movable (and killable) forces. It’s a return to form for a performer who has always been best served by flashy, violent action films. The rest of the cast seems to be having a blast with roles that fall neatly into the gangster pic genre. They don’t add believability to the film’s plot, thank God. They simply assist in elevating its quality.
Action films are difficult to pull off in a way that seems fresh and effective. The genre is a hodge podge of clichés and tropes that have been seen time and time again. When a film breathes new life into a genre Liam Neeson appeared to have punched into lifeless, despairing submission, celebration is required, and John Wick is definitely cause for celebration. Brilliantly and breathlessly directed by Chad Stahelski, it’s a film that propels forward with the force and relentless pace of an oncoming train. It’s a film of incredibly low ambition. It wants to be a well-crafted shoot-’em-up with the subtlety of a car crash and nothing else. There’s no philosophy, no deeper thematic significance. It’s simply punch, shoot, destroy, repeat. Yet the film is so absurdly entertaining and so refreshingly unpretentious, I watched it with my face eternally beaming. It may not be a profound experience, but it’s the best time I’ve had at the theatre in quite a while, and the best action film in years.
Check out the trailer below: