I can’t help but admire the simplicity of John Wick. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to do and doesn’t waste any time in aiming directly to achieve this. While he might not look it, Keanu Reeves is actually old enough for this to become another entry in the ‘geri-action’ subgenre that’s become prevalent over the last few years, but it isn’t pandering to nostalgia or neutering itself to get a PG-13, instead channelling the spirit of the eighties/nineties action movies I and so many others grew up watching. And the result is possibly the best English-language pure action movie since Dredd.
It’s difficult to describe the set-up of John Wick without having it sound tired and/or silly but here we go. It is another variation on the very standard revenge narrative, combined with the familiar ‘guy being sucked back into the murky world of crime he once escaped from’ plot. The most obvious departure from the norm here is that it’s not John Wick’s wife or children that get killed to kick off the story (and thankfully so). He doesn’t have any kids, and his wife’s already died from an unspecified terminal illness before the movie begins.
Her final gift to John is a puppy, and the few scenes we spend with John and the dog prove to be endearing to even the most canine-averse of people (a group in which I count myself). Out driving a few days later, he runs into some Russian gang members led by a young upstart called Iosef who takes a liking to his car (Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones, again proving adept at portraying instantly hateable scumbags). Later that night, the thugs break into his house to steal the car, and in the process beat him up and kill his puppy.
So yes, this is a movie about a man seeking violent revenge against a dangerous criminal gang for the killing of his dog, but in its context it doesn’t come across as completely ludicrous. John Wick doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, and that allows it to be a lot of fun rather than a grim revenge film. The story is really nothing special anyway, nor to be honest is much of the dialogue, but John Wick does gain a good deal of originality from its world-building.
Nothing we see of his actions in the opening scenes conveys the true nature of who John Wick is and where he came from, instead we learn this from the manner in which others talk about him. Matters are complicated due to Iosef being the son of the New York Russian Mafia boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). When Viggo is informed of just who’s car Iosef stole, he offers a hilariously deadpan single-syllable response that immediately lets us know just what kind of reputation Wick has. Wick’s mythical status among underground types is further emphasised by the way everyone knows who he is when he gets back into the game and reacts accordingly.
The crime circles he once came from are another entertaining aspect of the film, he stays in a hotel where everyone is apparently some kind of assassin, and they all know each other and operate under a code, trading in gold coins. Many of his associates provide fun cameos for a number of recognizable actors such as Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters.
The action scenes are what the film is really building to though. It shows some restraint in knowing it doesn’t have to open with a context-free explosive set-piece, and the first real sign of the carnage to come doesn’t happen until Viggo reluctantly sends a crew to Wick’s house, then Reeves lets loose his own particular set of skills with aplomb. Though this is their first time directing a film, co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch both have extensive experience working as stunt co-ordinators for a large number of Hollywood movies. That certainly shows with the craft they bring to the action scenes, often employing longer takes to ensure all the careful stunt work is clearly visible.
The house-set shootout is merely an appetizer though, as John Wick’s defining set-piece comes later. His pursuit of Iosef leads him to a nightclub where he must square off against a multitude of security personal before he can reach his target. While there are a good number of older cinematic influences to John Wick, this scene also embraces video game logic in the best way. We know these are all just nameless goons Wick has to get past to reach his real goal, and the film’s complete awareness of this allows watching Wick take them out one by one to be immensely enjoyable rather than problematic (and never like watching someone play a videogame). This isn’t the real world, and it doesn’t need to be. It also helps that Wick is not made out to be any kind of hero, he’s essentially a psychopathic killing machine, it’s just that the guys he’s after are even worse, and a perfectly-cast Reeves undoubtedly brings some sympathy with him. The nightclub scene also boasts some top-notch production design and cinematography, giving it an impressive style to match the quality of the stunt work.
If I had to peg anything about this film as a disappointment, it’d be that its climax doesn’t manage to top the central action sequence. There are a few more fights along the way as well, and the film never slows down for a moment once it gets going, it’s just that you’d hope they would have saved the best for last. It doesn’t really matter though, in the end John Wick is exactly what it wants to be, a ridiculous, over-the-top, no-nonsense action-fest with an intriguing underworld setting to boot.