Written by Derek Kolstad
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
As the film opens, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is breathing what appear to be his dying breaths. Battered and bruised, he stumbles out of the van he just crashed at the docks on Manhattan’s outskirts. In an instant viewers are taken back to a more pleasant time for John, back when he lived a happier life with his lovely wife, the latter eventually succumbing to an unnamed disease. A broken man without his soulmate, a glimmer of positivity arrives at his door in the shape of a puppy his wife seemingly purchased for him in anticipation of the mourning that was looming on the horizon. The bitter sweetness is short loved, shifting over the sheer bitterness when Iosef (Alife Allen), the overly cocky son of Russian mafia lord Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), kills the pup. Suddenly, John Wick has a score to settle and gets ready to flex his special set of skills…
John Wick, the most recent Keanu Reeves action movie, is courtesy of two directors who, up until this picture, had made names for themselves as action set-piece coordinators. As such, their foray into the domain of directing films begins with, unsurprisingly, a no holds barred, often exquisitely produced revenge adventure in which the protagonist exercises tools of the trade he let go of years ago upon meeting the woman he wanted to spend the remainder of his life with. To punctuate the point, in one scene John literally digs up and unlocks his old armoury case littered with pistols and bullets before setting off to track, maim and murder all those associated with the repugnant Iosef. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are obviously no strangers to the genre, but equipping themselves with a full production, not just preparing the high-octane sequences, is another matter altogether. Their efforts bear fruit for the most part, if mostly thanks to the sense of style they and the cast infuse into the picture, less so its hackneyed script from writer Derek Kolstad.
To be fair, expecting much else other than a simply drawn out ballad of bullets, fists and kicks would have set expectations over and beyond what the directing duo were arguably aiming for, not mention interested in. Understandably, Stahelski and Leitch remain in their comfort zone for the ride as John Wick wreaks havoc on Manhattan’s criminal underbelly without remorse or mercy. Ruthless efficiency is the name of the game under the Stahelski and Leitch’s guidance, with special attention going to the many, many instances when thugs and assassins are foolish to try and stop Wick in his one-man mission of bloodthirsty revenge. As should be the case, this is where the film truly shines, offering viewers a variety of gun fights and fisticuffs rarely witnessed in modern action motion pictures. While some might decry said encounters as too finely choreographed, it is extremely difficult to admire the mixture of slickness and brutality with which the anti-hero dispatches his opposites.
There is a majestic fluidity to the direction and editing that elevates John Wick beyond generic enterprises of the same ilk, albeit not by leaps and bounds. The directors evidently bring heaps of experience and expertise to the proceedings, their efforts paying off in spades in almost every instance. Reeves equips himself with alarming precision, making audiences forget that as far as age is concerned, he is actually not a spring chicken anymore and hasn’t been for some time already. This is much like the Keanu Reeves moviegoers discovered back in 1999 in The Matrix, only this time the movie earns its hard R rating, the bullet wounds producing gushes of blood and the physical contests leaving backs and necks broken. However stylistically some of the scenes are decorated via sophisticated lighting (action beats transpiring in night clubs look especially ostentatious), everything is very clear to the eye. Because of that, the impact of each blow is felt even more so.
The criticism of the script is, admittedly, perhaps a bit rough. There are spurts of cleverness peppered throughout, suggesting that the film does have some interesting ideas to share about John Wick’s world, only the problem is just that: they come in spurts. For instance, the revelation as to the protagonist’s former job as a hit man is kept secret for the story’s first 10 or 15 minutes. All that is shared is a grieving man with a pup who suddenly gets into trouble with some ruffians with ties to the Russian mafia, the latter whom proceed to invade his home one night, steal his car and kill the domestic animal. It is only when Iosef gloats about his self-ordained pathetic mission to his father Viggo that the plot and the hero’s nature kicks into higher gear. Viggo is appalled, infuriated and terrified that his only son would do something so foolish. Toying with the retired John Wick is akin to pleading for the death sentence.
Another recurring motif is that of youth’s lack of respect for those with more experience and tradition in general. The first example of that is course Iosef, whose abrasive, rambunctious inclinations shorten his life span by a handful of decades. The other is young assassin Ms Perkins, played by Adrianne Palicki. She, as well as a host of other contract killers, enjoys her time off at the Continental Hotel in downtown Manhattan (owned by the delightful Ian McShane), a resting spot for people in their specialized field. On hotel grounds there is to be no killing, a rule to which Ms. Perkins gives the middle finger, ultimately resulting in her discovering just how dangerous John Wick is and how seriously the establishment’s management takes the aforementioned regulation.
Unfortunately, apart from those two genuinely neat ideas, the overall plot is terribly run of the mill. The film includes Willem Dafoe as Marcus, another hit man that shares a friendship with John, and is thus conflicted upon accepting a contract from Viggo to take his friend out. While Dafoe’s presence is nearly always welcome, his character is rote. Nyqvist, as the picture’s chief heavy, struggles to distinguish himself ever since taking a stab at Hollywood, his role as Ethan Hunt’s nemesis in Ghost Protocol being equally forgettable. To really appreciate the story’s structure one must simply accept the dramatic beats for what they are and not necessarily for how they develop or why, otherwise John Wick is mostly a really nicely packaged exercise ground for two directors showing what they know best…which does include not great storytelling.
Despite its shortcomings, there is fun to be had with Keanu Reeves making his sudden comeback to the action genre (he recently co-starred in the martial arts flick Man of Tai Chi). He actually seems to be getting better with age. The actor who has so often been mocked for his relatively wooden acting is turning out to be a rather interesting leading man in modestly budgeted action movies. John Wick is not the apex of what these sorts of film have to offer, but it definitely works as a demo real for what really, really cool looking action can look like. There are good actors involved, although not all of which have particularly interesting things to do. Ultimately, one cannot fault it for handsomely accomplishing exactly what it sets out to do, however limited its aim may be.