When it comes to action movies, it takes a lot to disappoint me. It’s like making ramen—really hard to screw up. However, that doesn’t speak to the directors or the players; in order to make an excellent piece of cinema, the cinematographer, choreographer, director, and all the visual effects guys and actors have to be on the same wavelength, else the whole thing seems rigid and wonky. That goes for any genre, really, but especially one so grounded in quick movements and elaborate camerawork.
All of that is evident in Chad Stahelski’s 2014 action-thriller, John Wick—a masterful film that highlights every strength of the action genre, and pokes fun at some of its weaknesses.
This is Keanu Reeves at his finest. If The Matrix was his catapult to super-stardom, then John Wick is his Expendables. The man, clearly, doesn’t age. Here, he’s just as agile and aggressive as he was playing the role of Neo. His deadpan humor is never dull, keeping such a blood-fueled romp as this light and grin-inducing. I’m unsure why he hasn’t signed something with Stallone; even in a villain role, he’d kill it in an upcoming Expendables movie (I can’t be the only fan of either who thinks so…). His character’s reputation precedes him, but we never find out, over the course of the film, what horrific things he’s actually done. To me, that just adds to his bad-assery and emphasizes the mistake in those Russian punks thinking they could steal from him and get away with it. Moral of the story: don’t cross a psychopath whose name, alone, makes mob bosses soil themselves…
A lot of big names in this film—lends to the “legacy” aspect, I suppose. From John Leguizamo (Ice Age, The Infiltrator) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, The Boondock Saints) in semi-support roles, to the short-lived Toby Leonard Moore (Netflix’s Daredevil) and Bridget Moynahan (Blue Bloods), and cameo appearances from Kevin Nash and Lance Reddick, it’s a fun time of name-spotting, throughout—like Trivial Pursuit, but where I raked in all the points.
Another defining aspect of the action genre, as I’ve said, is…well, the action. Crappy set-pieces, crappy movie. In John Wick, they flow. The Red Circle club fight scene, especially, sticks out to me; as Wick works up through the levels of the club and Viggo’s men, it’s like one, sweeping movement. His deftness in the martial arts lends to the smoothness of the scene. Sure, one can tell that he’s a bit rusty, after years of pseudo-retirement, but he’s still lethal as hell. This a very gritty production, almost like it was ripped right from the pages of a graphic novel.
There’s no real call for a strong story in a given action film, and that’s true here, too. It’s a compelling take on the effect of personal loss—as it may be very well what tips the teetering Wick back into the hitman underworld—but it’s very basic, foundationally. Wick’s a celebrity, in the world of death-dealing, who hangs up his hat for a woman. She dies, he’s left with a token of her existence, and, when that’s threatened, Wick goes on a rampage. Again, he’s a psychopath who you just don’t mess with—no doubt that the added grief made him allthemore deadly in his pursuits.
The muted, monochrome color palette is fitting for the film, without being boring. Wick’s wardrobes of (mostly) blacks and off-colors are, certainly, a call-back to Reeves’s Matrix days, and it’s welcome. Grants him a very Grim Reaper quality. Subtle nuances, like the gold coin macguffins, add complexity and depth to the universe of the film, as do Wick’s apparent sway over local law enforcement, and his dial-an-undertaker, whom shows up several times throughout. Overall, it’s a cinematically-compelling universe that the filmmakers have established, and I can’t wait to see where they go with the sequel, dropping February 10th (and with a third movie already slated, it seems the fans can’t, either).
I give John Wick a final ‘Risk Assessment of ****/*. Looking forward to the next chapter in this daredevil saga…and more Keanu Reeves.