John Wick is the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. For those unfamiliar, the two men who founded 87Eleven Action Design are known for their comprehensive stunt work ranging from films like the Matrix films to 300 and even recent projects like The Hunger Games films. They have previously worked with Keanu Reeves and even did work for Reeve’s 2013 film Man of Tai Chi. Now, Keanu Reeves is starring in their first film John Wick, which is written by Derek Kolstad.
John Wick is about…well, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who is a former assassin. His wife has passed away and left him a little puppy as a gift after her death. However a messy encounter with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) the bratty son of the Russian mobster, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) leads to a late night beating, the theft of his car, as well as the death of his dog, Daisy. What follows is John Wick bringing down the wrath of hell upon the Russian mob and everyone they throw his way. And by “bringing down the wrath of hell” I mean literally shooting everyone in the face.
Action cinema, especially in America, hasn’t been offered many memorable releases in recent years, at least ones that don’t involve the military or guys in tights (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that). It’s often plagued by forced PG-13 ratings on films that are clearly meant to be R, the frequent use of shaky cam and quick-cut editing creating incoherent action sequences, and bad filmmakers failing to apply proper suspense building techniques. There are plenty of other problems that affect modern action films, but these are the big ones. Usually action fans will look towards foreign films to get their fix, such as the recent Raid films which have achieved high acclaim and both of which are among the best action films I’ve seen. Fortunately, John Wick has arrived and surprisingly delivers on multiple aspects. It’s not only one of the best action films of the year it’s without a doubt one of the best American action films released in the past several years. What makes the film work so well can be broken down to three basic elements: the direction, the action itself and Keanu Reeves in the lead role.
One aspect of the film that I loved was how the filmmakers were refreshingly blunt in their approach with the material. There is a sense of glee that is very infectious with how the film was essentially saying, “Hey, you guys know what the deal is, so let’s just have fun with it.” It was a well done exercise in efficient, barebones filmmaking that relies on visual rhythm and progression over constant exposition and bloated storytelling. Each scene has a purpose and flows smoothly to the next with no time wasted. Character motivations are quickly, but effectively, explained within minutes of their appearance and all necessary connections that the audience need for certain characters are handled excellently. The film runs just over an hour and 40 minutes, and not a single minute is wasted, nor does the pacing ever go uneven. This method in telling the story allows the filmmakers to really have fun with the film and allow a sense of stylish fun to takeover, which makes the overall experience that much better.
The second aspect that stands out as previously mentioned is the action. The filmmakers have an obvious love for the action genre and nothing says that more than the way the action was done in John Wick. Not only is the hand-to-hand fighting and gunplay choreography impressive, but there was no shaky cam, no constant cutting, little to no CG elements (that I could tell at least) and a masterfully executed sense of scale and location to each action scene. I can tell where everyone is in relation to each other, I can see very clearly what each character is doing within each encounter, and there were some creatively set up shots to capture the violence for the best desired effect. The phenomenal sound design also helps with this.
And of course there’s Keanu Reeves, who I happen to be a fan of. He is one of those actors that need to have a role that properly suits his style, which is really not that unique, but he is the most prevalent examples of that type of actor. Good news is that he knocks it out of the park. It plays up his strengths as an actor and avoids the aspects that he tends to struggle with. In fact, this is one of his better performances. I think Reeves and the filmmakers took a smart approach with handling a character that could have easily felt like watching a superhuman with no tension during action sequences. The beginning of the film revolves around showing the tragic death of John Wick’s wife, which has clearly left him shattered. Then we see him connecting with the dog, which was the gift that his wife left for him so he doesn’t spend the rest of his life depressed. When the Russian thugs break into John Wick’s house, they beat him to a bloody pulp before killing the dog. What the film does effectively here is allowing the audience to connect to John Wick through his vulnerabilities and allowing us to get a bloodlust for the mobsters before he goes on his rampage. It’s certainly more effective than starting off with a James Bond-esque opening set piece to show off how badass he is, and then doing the tragic stuff. It also helps that even during his killing spree, John Wick will occasionally run out of ammo, get caught off guard, and will even get a few shots and hits in his direction, which is mostly due to him being a bit rough around the edges because of being out of the game for four years. It’s a minor thing for sure, but it’s an incredibly effective way of creating a connection with an audience in a way that stays consistent throughout the film. You give the audience a reason to care and they will stick with the characters and the story. Keanu Reeves does great with the material, and he becomes a sympathetic figure really fast. You only see him interact with the dog briefly, but those brief moments are so well done that when the death finally happens, you immediately understand and empathize with his rage. It’s the kind of role Keanu Reeves was born for, and any fan of his will have a blast with this. I haven’t even mentioned the top notch supporting cast, consisting of mostly character actors like Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, just to name a few. It’s quite honestly some of the best use of character actors since Scorsese’s Shutter Island.
For anyone who has paid attention to some of the buzz from the film’s festival runs, it’s been getting a lot of praise for its worldbuilding. The film does a great job at using visual cues, natural dialogue and clearly presented character actions do create this bizarre underground world of hitmen who all work under a code and the way they live their lives, especially with this one particular hotel that provides some interesting services to their clients. Little details like hitmen using gold coins for all their transactions and the various lingo and knowledge among the characters in regards to one another really adds to the creativity and imagination of the comic book-esque world that they set up. It’s surprisingly well-executed and puts other franchises to shame that try to force sequels through embarrassing attempts at expanding the world (I’m looking at you The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Maze Runner!). John Wick has a story and a set of characters they focus 100% on; the world building is all background stuff, where it should be. That is why it’s effective, and it manages to set up such a cool world which is ripe for sequel material, while not necessarily begging for one.
While I can’t necessarily say that John Wick transcends the revenge genre by any means, it doesn’t take away the fact that it is one of the best action movies in recent memory. The film knows exactly what it is, what is wants to do and how to efficiently go from one narrative beat to the next. Despite being a pure B-movie, there is some genuinely smart filmmaking in John Wick. The action is brutal and quick, but also fluid, easy to follow, and wonderfully choreographed. Keanu Reeves is excellent and his performance here serves as a great comeback role. All of that combined with a great stylish direction, a solid script, and a slightly self-aware sense of humor gives the film a personality that oozes of “cool.” Every action fan needs to see John Wick, and in the theaters too (don’t let this bomb like Dredd). If there’s any movie out right now that deserves a franchise of its own, it’s John Wick. It’s easily side-by-side with The Raid 2 as the best action film of the year. It’s a wild ride and a lot of fun. You don’t see many action films like this anymore.
Side Note: Now it the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about Man of Tai Chi. It was released in 2013 and is Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut. He also stars as the main baddie alongside the main character played by Keanu’s good friend, and a stuntman for the first to Matrix films, Tiger Chen. It’s a very well done homage to old school 70’s-80’s martial arts films. It follows Tiger Chen’s character finding himself in a secret underground fighting tournaments held by Keanu Reeves’ character. It’s a fairly basic story following Tiger Chen going on a downward spiral as he gets more aggressive and violent, which is against everything Tai Chi stands for. I was particularly impressed with how a lot of Tai Chi philosophy is interwoven within the narrative. It makes for a compelling character driven action movie. Keanu Reeves’ direction is very good, the martial arts scenes are well shot and choreographed and seeing Keanu Reeves play a scenery-chewing villain is something I would never say anything bad about. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re into old fashioned martial arts movies.