It is said that the most influential public speakers exude a charisma and confidence that, regardless what is said, commands the attention of their audience. It is very much the same with movies. John Wick, the first film by David Leitch and Chad Stahelskki, is a show-stopping example of why. Leitch and Stahelskki don’t for a second stutter, directing their debut with a swagger rare even among the Hollywood elite. Most action movies today are tonally uncertain and can’t commit to a unified vision, as though there are too many hands in the creative pot. In sharp, amazing contrast, John Wick is the opposite. It knows what it is, what it wants to say, what it wants to do, and how to do it with fidelity, talent, but most of all, fun. It’s an action movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, skillfully constructed to deliver what’s promised by its conceit. Not a second goes by that doesn’t somehow prime the action engine, and when the film hits fourth gear (which takes all of 15 minutes), John Wick is a thoroughbred action spectacle that moves at a blistering pace leaving you absolutely breathless.
The hero’s drama is simple. A former hitman named John Wick (Keanu Reeves), famous in the criminal underworld for his unequaled skills as an assassin, is retired. He got out of the game years ago to spend his life with a woman he fell in love with, which is the only reason, the Kolstad’s script notes, criminals ever leave “the life.” When she tragically passes away from an illness, she leaves John a living symbol of her everlasting love for him: a heart-meltingly cute puppy. He doesn’t have to mourn alone. We, like John, love this animal. Who couldn’t? So when punk Russian mobsters led by Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen break into his luxurious modernist home and leave him badly beaten and his cute loving pup dead, we feel a pang of loss and even anger. They came for his car—a beautiful slick black beast of a vehicle, the kind of car that would get people laid in college—but took so much more.
We are pissed. We want John to get sweet blood-soaked revenge, and that is exactly what the film delivers. John Wick’s screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, understands the needed economy of an action script: characters that don’t feign depth, complex psychology is a no-no, and motivations stay clear, simple, and relatable. The delicate crafting of the film’s central, albeit thin, motivation pulls off what so few Hollywood movies know how to: we’re given just enough reason to care. Dogs, all animals really, are walking symbols of a child-like innocence, giving buckets of love and affection and want for little. Killing one, especially in a blasé, mean spirited way, instantly makes the animal a mini-surrogate child. That’s precisely the kind of miracle jet fuel that powers a blood-thirsty revenge thriller.
Like the steely cool Driver in Drive, Keanu Reeves’s John Wick has a frightening calm that transcends the chaos around him, a blood-squirting zen that gives him unique verve as a killer. Characters this stylishly written don’t come often, and that Reeves plays him with significant aplomb is at once surprising and expected. He’s perfectly cast, but it takes some watching to see why. He’s been criticized for performances that are aloof and disconnected but are still somehow intense. Here Reeves uses his singular qualities as a performer to make Wick believable, cool, and fierce. His unexpressive face personifies the absence of fear and hesitation, instead expressing pure determination and power. His performance is self-aware but still shows range, helping set the film’s perfectly calibrated tone. It’s heightened, not overtly campy, making the ridiculous action scenes a logical consequence of the world that has been created rather than an absurd collision.
For first time filmmakers, Leitch and Stahelskki have made their debut stunningly cohesive, giving the impression that all the threads are in place. The absence of a false note is reminiscent of action classics like Aliens and Die Hard, with all the pieces—action, character, visuals—snapping into place. What’s surprising about John Wick isn’t the incredible and bountiful action: the directors were both stuntman with an amazing education on sets like V for Vendetta, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Matrix movies. It’s the world building. There’s a deep, rewarding mythology that’s been painstakingly created, brought to life by an eclectic supporting cast including Ian McShane as one of the old-guard, Willem Dafoe as assassin and former mentor for John, Adrianna Palicki as a sexy femme fatale, Lance Reddick as the clerk for a hotel that only books assassins, and Michael Nyqvist as the hilarious grumpy mob boss John is out to take down. But, also unlike most films of its type, John Wick doesn’t gawk at its own world, instead naturally coasting through it like it’s the everyday.
None of this would matter if the action didn’t deliver, but it does. It really does. It really, really does. Wick is a shotgun to the face, constantly blowing you away with how it reinvents, not revolutionizes, classic action scenes and scenarios. Each action beat is distinct, with its own rhythm and form that stops the film from ever feeling repetitive. If there’s a flaw, it’s that there’s a slight feeling the film starts to drag in the final stretch, but it’s too entertaining to care. There’s the striking home invasion by militarized mob men, each systematically shot, most in the head, by John. There’s the neon-soaked club standoff that looks like the silhouetted Jellyfish fight scene from Skyfall only turned to eleven. As a tribute to the classic action film, it even ends with a poetically shot fistfight in the rain. Each of the thrilling set pieces are filmed with clarity, keeping the camera back to let the action speak for itself. The fight choreography is unlike most action films, with Reeves mastering a martial arts equivalent to using handguns and assault weapons. A macro view might make Wick look conventional, but its details are anything but.
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