John Wick (United States, 2014)

October 24, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
John Wick Poster

John Wick is a rousing action thriller of the sort rarely encountered in theaters these days. The once popular genre, which was headlined by the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger during its heyday, has been a dying breed during the past two decades. Occasionally, a movie like The Raid (or its bigger, better sequel, The Raid 2) comes along to satisfy fans with a penchant for R-rated violence, but the growing desire for PG-13 action and the emergence of computer generated imaging has rendered old-school brutality obsolete. Then along comes unlikely candidate Keanu Reeves to ignite the flame once again. For those who crave no-holds barred action, this may be the best the autumn has to offer.

There isn't much of a plot, but that's often the case with revenge-based tales. Movies of this sort aren't about narrative depth, they're about taking a hero through an increasingly difficult series of bad guys until he comes face-to-face with the Big Boss. In a way, it's like a video game. It should come as no surprise that John Wick is cross-promoting with Payday 2. There are a lot of cinematic antecedents that could be mentioned in discussing John Wick, but this reminded me most strongly of the Mel Gibson version of Payback. Reeves portrays the title character, an ex-mob assassin who is brought out of retirement when his car is stolen and his dog is killed by the punk Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). Iosef is the son of Wick's former boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). The path to the father-and-son Tarasov's forces Wick to run a gauntlet comprised of old friends, associates, and enemies played by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane.

John Wick's greatest strength is its relentless momentum. The film doesn't have a lot of down time. It offers occasional breaks, including some amusing scenes that take place in a hotel where guests aren't allowed to "talk business." (Breaking that rule, it turns out, can have serious consequences.) For the most part, however, John Wick knows what it is and is unapologetic about it. This is a kick-butt action film with no pretensions of being anything else. There is a short dialogue about karma and God but it's neither deep nor long.

Reeves is in many ways a perfect choice for the lead. When the movie begins, Wick is in a deep funk following the death of his wife. His emotions have been shut down and remain thus for most of the film as he goes about his work. Reeves has never displayed much range; his screen presence has always been his strongest asset and it's in evidence here. Wick is more of a force of nature than a fully realized character. He has sufficient backstory to make him sympathetic but, like Denzel Washington's The Equalizer, his past is murky. The supporting cast is nicely eclectic, with Michael Nyqvist providing a villain who is more urbane that the usual frothing-at-the-mouth bad guy and Adrianne Palicki adding a little black widow sex appeal.

My biggest gripe (and it's not a big one) with John Wick's presentation is the prologue flash-forward which adds nothing to the narrative progression while telling us pretty much how things are going to end. This is always in the back of our minds as we're progressing through the movie; it's an unnecessary distraction.

The film was co-directed by former stuntmen/coordinators David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (DGA rules mandate that Stahelski be given sole official credit). They show a good understanding of how to frame a fight and never resort to the kind of rapid-fire cutting that reduces an action scene into visual confetti. The shoot-outs in John Wick are short and brutal and the few one-on-one battles don't drag on forever. There's a car chase but it's short and sweet. Leitch and Stahelski may not be on the short list to direct the next Jane Austen adaptation but they know their stuff when it comes to action films.

John Wick (United States, 2014)

Director: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane
Screenplay: Derek Kolstad
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Music: Joel L. Richard
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2014-10-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1