This is one of those lamentably rare times when I find myself asking “Where the hell did this come from?” Seriously, this wasn’t even on my radar until the first trailer came out and blew everyone’s hair back, and that was only a month ago. Now the film has been released to rave reviews, and I’m still left wondering how it could have been released with virtually no advance hype.
Though to be fair, it’s not like John Wick ever looked that impressive on paper. It stars Keanu Reeves, who was always a curiously improbable action star to begin with, and he’s pushing 50 by this point. His costar is Adrianne Palicki, whose most notable works include the Red Dawn remake, the live-action GI Joe franchise, and the mercifully aborted NBC Wonder Woman pilot. Up until her kickass appearance in “Agents of SHIELD” last week, there really wasn’t anything to suggest that she was worthy star material.
Also, the film was directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two men who’ve never directed anything before. Though they are both very experienced in stuntwork, having worked on The Matrix and several other Wachowski projects, so there’s that. Finally, there’s writer Derek Kolstad, who’s only ever worked on a couple of Dolph Lundgren throwaway duds. One of them actually co-starred Cuba Gooding Jr., I swear to God.
So when I say that John Wick turned out to be a pleasant surprise, I hope you’ll appreciate how incredibly huge an understatement that is.
Some backstory: The titular John Wick (Reeves, of course) used to be a top-notch assassin for the Russian mob. The guy had such a legendary reputation in the criminal underworld that he wasn’t just known as the bogeyman — he was the guy people hired to kill the bogeyman (no joke, someone actually says that in the movie). But then Wick fell in love and earned his retirement by killing an army’s worth of guys for the mob, and now I want a prequel so I can see that movie.
Anyway, Wick was happily married until the tragic death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan). Don’t worry, she died of natural causes. In fact, it seems that she was fatally ill for so long that she arranged for a new puppy to be delivered to John upon her death. A gift of love from beyond the grave, if you will. Alas, Wick crosses paths with Josef (Alfie Allen), who happens to be the spoiled son of Wick’s old employer (Viggo, played by Michael Nyqvist). Josef — not knowing who Wick is — breaks into his house, beats him up, steals his gorgeous vintage Mustang, and then kills his puppy for good measure.
Wick takes this about as well as you’d expect.
Right off the bat, the film is kind enough to tell us that character development will not be a priority. For God’s sake, the villians are established as brainless punks who go out of their way to steal something for no reason, and then they kill a puppy in cold blood just to hammer the point home. And this is all in the first fifteen minutes.
As for Wick, he’s given no other motivation for his killing spree and no other characterization aside from being a complete demon who’s pissed off at losing his chance for redemption. Yet it works. After all, Reeves has always been an unlikely action hero precisely because he has an approachable kind of charm to him. He’s always looked and acted like a completely harmless “surfer dude” type, so that was his shtick up to and (to a lesser degree) even after Matrix. Yet he’s aged exceptionally well, in such a way that there’s now a gritty kind of edge to that charm. The approachability is still there, but Reeves can use that to temper a kind of intensity that he could only begin to summon in his Neo days. The end result is a character who could just as easily atone for his sins as continue murdering everyone until he drops dead.
The supporting cast deserves a lot of credit as well. In particular, Michael Nyqvist is tasked with delivering most of Wick’s backstory in a flagrant violation of “show, don’t tell.” Yet the writing is so hyperbolic and Nyqvist’s performance is so overblown that he sells it. Similarly, it’s obvious that no one in the cast has any delusions about what kind of movie they’re in. Every single person involved in making this picture was obviously committed to delivering a brainless action extravaganza, nothing more and nothing less.
That said, it’s not like the movie doesn’t have anything new to offer. Its most notable innovation is Winston (Ian McShane), who runs a variety of services for professional hitmen. Anytime someone needs a body disposed of, some wounds sewn up, or rest at a hotel where violence is strictly prohibited (complete with Lance Reddick as a suave maitre d’), that can all be arranged for only a few gold coins. Call it contrived, but it neatly feeds into the greater theme of honor among criminals. Like there’s absolutely no hypocrisy in the notion of civility and integrity among hardened killers with rivers of blood on their hands.
Which brings me to the action. A movie this thin and brainless would have had absolutely nothing if its action wasn’t up to par, and the fight scenes do not disappoint. The choreography, camerawork, and editing are all exceptional. The gunplay is so much more active and involved than “take cover and shoot blindly at anything that moves.” The fight scenes use guns, knives, CQC, and cars, mixing them all up in a wide variety of ways that are fast-paced and tremendously exciting.
Of course, the usual mindless action cliches are still in effect, but the film plays with them in some clever ways. The guns tend to run on bottomless ammo, except for when Wick can spare a second to reload. There’s even one notable moment when Wick pulls the trigger and comes up empty, so the other guy hobbles around for a while while Wick reloads. I promise, it’s much funnier on the screen. Also, Wick quite visibly suffers for all the cuts and bruises he takes, except when he needs full movement for the fight sequences. Wick’s intelligence and talents likewise tend to shift as the plot requires, and the complete absence of the NYPD is quite unsettling. Basically, the film acknowledges realism just enough that the fight scenes can be taken seriously, but not so much that realism becomes a distraction. The balance is quite deft, in point of fact.
Getting back to the supporting cast, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, and Bridget Moynahan all make very solid impressions with relatively little screen time. However, John Leguizamo gets so little to do that he may as well not have been cast, and Dean Winters is a terribly underrated talent who’s completely wasted here. By contrast, Willem Dafoe elevates his role as only he can, and Clarke Peters pokes his head in for a brief but welcome turn. As for Ms. Palicki, she finally seems to have found her niche as a scenery-chewing badass. I hope that skill set serves her well.
There isn’t much more to say about John Wick because it’s the kind of movie that speaks for itself very loudly. The film has no aspirations aside from being a brainless action romp, it pursues that goal without any semblance of shame, and it achieves the goal quite handily. The film works as a very impressive debut for its directors, and also as further proof that Reeves is still a perfectly viable action star.
Anyone who wants character development and a deep plot will come away disappointed, but they’re probably not the type who’d see a movie like this anyway. The makers of John Wick knew exactly who their audience is, and that audience will more than certainly get their ticket money’s worth.