Two to the chest, one to the head. That perfectly describes John Wick’s signature kill move and also embodies the attitude and style of John Wick the movie; lean, precise and doesn’t screw around. John Wick is the latest incarnation of a movie sub-genre that is rare but prevalent enough to qualify as a sub-genre; the revenge potboiler. The rough structure goes like this – Bad-ass is out of the game, Bad-ass gets wronged (usually by someone he’s connected to in his past bad-ass life) in a way that deeply offends his personal bad-ass code, bad-ass goes on a bad-ass kill spree until everyone he wants dead is dead regardless of what’s thrown at him, bad-ass takes his lumps but emerges victorious and goes on his bad-ass way. Simple, straightforward, bereft of philosophical handwringing. This is the kind of material the likes of Lee Marvin, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson were famous for. The type of tough guy that gives Tarantino wood. John Wick knows this, has no qualms about it, and smartly stays focused on being just that.
This type of story doesn’t muck about with “deep shit”, mostly that’s inferred, so the cards the creative team had best play are “style”, “attitude” and “cool”. John Wick has those elements in spades but doesn’t over-play its hand either. This New York pulses and throbs with vivid color and even more vivid darkness. Everybody is sharply dressed, speaks well, and the universe hums on an internal logic that probably doesn’t have any relation to reality… but that’s beside the point. Also the lead bad-ass has to embody these virtues of cool, style, and attitude w/o trying, or better yet, not give a shit about trying. The bad-ass is a force to be reckoned with, single minded, focused, can’t be bothered by the wake of destruction caused in pursuit of his goal. A crystalline personification (in a perfectly tailored suit) of the abstract concept Allen Ginsberg termed “Bleak male energy”.
Which brings me to a statement I’d never imagined I’d ever say in my life for the sheer randomness of it; Keanu Reeves is the Lee Marvin of his generation.
That’s not an insult by any means.
I’m actually a huge Keanu, fan but I’ll be the first to admit Keanu is never going to win awards for his acting. At best he has a weird tabula rasa charisma that allows the audience to perceive him as a likeable airhead (Bill and Ted movies), use him as the ultimate proxy (The Matrix movies), or make other actors seem better (almost any of his movies). Now, though, he has added grim, stoic bad-ass to the roster and it fits him like a glove. Combine that with his martial arts training (He was trained by Yuen Woo-Ping for crissakes!) and doing his own stunts background and it’s stunning that we didn’t have something like John Wick from him earlier in his career. Or maybe it took his stunt double (Chad Stahelski), making his directing debut, to figure out that this role was perfect for Mr. Reeves. Keanu stalks the landscape of this stylized New York as if he is the only thing that matters (essentially he is), sanctioning fools with cold brutal efficiency and letting the respect/admiration/sheer terror of everyone’s reaction to him just slide off his dark gray suit. When a doctor offers him pain killers for his wounds John just gives a small smile, grabs his glass of whiskey and says “Already got that covered” and slugs it back.
Everybody knows John Wick here, the smart ones don’t get in his way or actively help (though that means their demise about 95% of the time), and the ones who are his targets aren’t happy about being on the list. It would all seem silly if, time and time again, John Wick didn’t earn such reactions. In the first big fight sequence John wipes out a dozen masked hit men sent to his house with lethal focus. Instead of coming across bombastic and over the top the scene deftly illustrates what a precise, ruthless, and efficient killing machine Wick is. The action is quick, brutal and realistic – completely relying on the actor’s stunt work for the kinetic energy of the scene. No stupid, queasy, shaky hand-cam nonsense, no stylized lens flare obscuring the action, desperately trying to generate false tension. Stahelski gets out of his own way and lets the action speak for itself. John Wick is the course correction action cinema has been sorely needing for almost a decade.
I claim that John Wick is lean and to the point but, as this review might indicate, there is a lot going on underneath. It’s about murderers and psychos, yet the adherence to codes of conduct is rewarded (with survival, natch), colorful yet dark, grim yet funny, lean yet packed with style, all chilly exterior yet has a deep pumping heart underneath. There is one female character (the lovely and serious bad-ass in her own right Adrianne Palicki) yet she’s the one who calls Wick a “pussy”. On paper this movie shouldn’t work, yet on film it does spectacularly. Like great works of art John Wick is a tangle of contradictions that work together. It might not be for everybody but being a fan of this site it’s a good bet it’s for you.
RATING – I would’ve rated it “see in theatre” but since this is a video review, I’ll go with “worth owning on video”.
Willem Dafoe is Wick’s guardian sniper angel. Staged on rooftops next to gargoyles and shooting bullets through stained glass is a clever joke.
Ian McShane is a hoot as the effeminate super connected “guy who knows everything”. A necessary plot device in this type of movie but that doesn’t mean Ian can’t have some fun with it.
“Dinner reservation for twelve” you’ll get it when you see the movie.
One big action set piece takes place at a club called “The Red Circle”. I’d say that was blunt but it fits the aesthetic of this movie perfectly.
I just can’t decide if it’s a metaphor for the bloody cycle of violence or the writer had an X-Box that went bad.
People bag on Keanu. Bagging on a guy who knows sword fighting and kung-fu might not be the best move… Keanu could probably kill you.