John Wick is a beautiful ballet of death and destruction. It combines the brutal hand-to-hand combat of Jason Bourne with Ridley Scott’s visual sensibilities to create the perfect vehicle for Keanu Reeves. Here, Reeves struts his physicality and underrated comic timing to ratchet up the fun while he amasses a huge body count. It’s an ultra-slick, violence-worshipping extravaganza that will have you eating from the palm of its bloodstained hand.
John Wick tells a story as ancient as time itself…
Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Girl gets terminal illness. Girl leaves boy a dog to help him grieve. Russian mafia kills dog. Boy goes on murderous quest for vengeance.
Ah, the classics.
Of course, this merely serves as the framework that allows Keanu Reeves to kick all manner of butt in a series of spectacular action set pieces. At its core, however, John Wick is a story about reconciling professional etiquette with personal agendas. These people may be killers and thugs, but their world demands a very specific code of conduct. When that code is violated, it knocks things off-kilter and only a bloodletting can re-establish the delicate balance.
John (Reeves) is well out of the murder-for-hire game when he gets sucked back in through a random act of violence. In this case, the son (Alfie Allen) of his previous employer, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), takes away the last vestige of his beloved wife (Bridget Moynahan). It’s not only a personal violation, but it breaks the contract forged by John and Viggo years before. Knowing what a perpetual killing machine John Wick can be, Viggo puts a bounty on his head, which is eagerly pursued by fellow bagmen, Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). As Viggo intones with a mixture of dread and respect, “John Wick was the man you sent to kill the boogeyman.”
But let’s be honest… this movie is all about the stylized violence. And directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, deliver time and time again. Instead of rehashing tired set pieces from every ‘rampaging hit-man’ movie we’ve ever seen (we’re looking at you, Three Days to Kill), they shake things up by closing the distance between predator and prey. The action is intimate and painful, and even when the coup de grâce is finally delivered, it comes at close range. Choreographed within an inch of their life, the fight sequences utilize terrific stunt work, as well as Reeves’ inherent physicality, to deliver a visceral punch. In busy nightclubs or lonely hotel rooms, the directors use whatever’s at hand to become a deadly weapon. John Wick is like Jackie Chan with bad intentions.
The script, too, features lots of clever bits and dark humor to enhance this world. Writer, Derek Kolstad, masterfully taps into the sense of tradition and professional code with his most inspired creation, the Continental Hotel. Here, “professionals” can relax and be pampered, free from the threat of retaliation or persecution. The desk clerk knows every guest by name, and, of course, there’s a doctor on staff to tend to any unfortunate “accidents.” Sure, the script is littered with questionable decisions and plot holes, like inexplicably allowing people to live just so they can influence the action later, but who can complain when the results are this much fun?
Visually speaking, John Wick is an impressive achievement. A veteran of moody action films, cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, delivers a lush but shadowy canvas, highlighting the nighttime realm presided over by these self-appointed kings. Even the aerial photography from high above the city lends character to this civilized jungle. It’s the perfect example of visual style elevating shallow material to loftier heights than it otherwise deserves.
John Wick is a testament to testosterone. Every car is fast, every girl is foxy, and every kill is appropriately vicious. Reeves is perfect for this material, able to convey a tortured humanity while still mowing through his opponents like a soulless machine. Those yearning for a glossy action flick that doesn’t get lost in its own gravitas are going to love this one. John Wick kills it, over and over again.