Movie Review: John Wick
There’s been not shortage of kiss-kiss, bang-bang at the box office this year. Whether it was Liam Neeson using his special skill set, Kevin Costner attempting to revive Luc Besson’s strangle hold on the noir hit man thriller, or Scarlet Johansson bringing some super powers to La Femme Nikita, Hollywood has not forgotten how much we love a shoot em up. Except the actual film Shoot Em Up, which was awful. Unfortunately, these days action films tend to suffer from two distinct shortcomings that try to hide the errors of a physically limited actor or a bad choreographer: too much CG, or choppy Jason Bourne style quick-cuts that fake the funk on the nasty dunk. Well, there’s a new game in town, and director Chad Stahelski and actor Keanu Reeves are the Jordan and Pippin of stylishly shooting people in the face.
John Wick (2014)
So, the plot. The film spends a good twenty minutes establishing the powerful depth of emotion that John Wick has for his sick wife. And I mean it is a good twenty minutes. I was moved. The film manages to evoke sincere pathos, and even address the dignity of a spouse choosing to terminate life support. In a shoot em up. We can’t get this kind of genuine resonance in movies specifically dealing with end of life dramas, yet a movie featuring Keanu Reeves shooting 100 Russian mobsters in the face handles it deftly. Tip of the hat to all involved in creating this introduction to our hero.
After suffering his loss, John is without direction. Former associate Marcus (Willem DeFoe) ominously brings up John’s mysterious past, but stops short of revealing his true nature. John’s attempts at catharsis also hint at a dark past. Nearing exhaustion, a surprise present from his wife arrives one night, a gift that gives him the desire to continue living. And then some piss-ant Russian mafia goons arrive to crush that life-line. Things look bleak…for the Russians.
You see, John Wick used to be the best killer the under-world ever knew. He killed people who God couldn’t get at. Then he met his wife, and gave it all up, via spectacular carnage we are led to believe. When the Russian hooligans, including the son of New York’s leading crime boss Viggo, step all over John’s grieving retirement, they open a Pandora’s box of whup ass that all of the criminal underground will soon regret.
Far Eastern Promises
John Wick is a love letter to the crime-based action thriller. The action is redolent of such masterworks as Hard Boiled, Eastern Promises, and La Femme Nikita. The strength of the film is that John Wick manages to be an homage without being a retread. Influences of earlier films abound, but Stahelski never steals or appropriates images or shots: this movie develops a style and a sensibility all its own, while managing to plant both feet firmly in the genre. Perhaps, at times, planting itself too firmly…
The action pieces of John Wick are shot with wide angles and few cuts. The action is masterfully choreographed, and the actors and stunt persons are at the top of their game. The gunshots and neck punches are fast and brutal, but never slopped over by quick-cuts or slurred by stedi-cam. When a 10-20 move sequence unfolds, you know that the players put love and detail into every move of the piece, because each action will be front and center, without blemish, cut, or digital affect. Keanu has studied well under action masters like Yuen Woo-Ping, and is in top form. I thought he was punching above his weight class in his fight scenes for Man of Tai Chi…but apparently the dude has been slowly making the genre his own. I’ve often wondered who will take over the mantle of action hero from aging icons like Van Damme, Seagal, Snipes, and Li. I figured young guns like Tony Jaa or Tiger Chen had the stuff. Apparently Keanu is making his play for the title.
Perfection, But Not Innovation
My one gripe with John Wick is that the film is so firmly entrenched in the genre, that it rarely challenges the genre outside of cinematography. Taking the Hong Kong style of action film as a standard, John Wick perfects it: the action is tight, fluid, and seamless. You never feel cheated by the action. The only problem is that the story that brackets the action is formulaic. Outside of the stellar opening narrative, John Wick is happy to play by the genre rules…including some of the most maddening and artificial story tropes to haunt it. The inciting incident feels like a let down, compared to the rich background set-up before it. In fact, it is only that rich to excuse the feeble nature of the inciting action. Not too spoil too much, but I’ve seen two movies this year that involve a man getting physically violent over a dog, and it never seems justified.
The film is not cliche, but the few cliches that rear their heads are real plot busters: the bad guys never kill the good guy when they have the overwhelming upper hand; people who are hard as nails give up crucial information when they know you are going to kill them anyway; the hero has a soft spot for people who will, without fail, fuck them over later in the movie; and the hero must be honorable, even if it means dropping his gun for a guy who you know has a knife. Seriously? I’m supposed to believe this man has gained all of his powers by being an unremitting bad ass, but must act honorably whenever a scumbag calls him on it? And that scumbag will suddenly play fair when the hero is completely out of options? Come on!
From Russia, with Love
John Wick is a thoroughly exhilarating thrill ride, with only a few potholes to bounce you around. In the first hour I was riding high: the story was fleshed out, filled with emotion, and the visuals managed to throw some really arresting twists at me. I was fairly convinced that this was the action shooter of the year, if not the decade. The second half managed to throw some curve balls, mostly by adhering so strictly to the norms of the genre, but I was still riding out the storm. Early word has it that John Wick might become a latter day Bourne, a bankable action star that could bring practical choreography and stunt-work back to the main stream. I certainly hope so. Despite some let downs, this movie was a stylish and calculated risk that leveraged all of the best of the shoot em up scene. If John Wick makes enough money to allow the creative team to really go in new directions, I could really adopt this new franchise.