A longtime bad guy leaves the life of crime only to find himself back in it to settle a final score. Chances are you have seen this kind of movie before. But not like this. This back-to-basics action flick is a throwback to the pre-CGI action era of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzengger. ‘John Wick’ is worth a trip to the theaters (and worth the IMAX surcharge) thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals, and an unexpectedly solid performance from Keanu Reeves as the titular character.
Keanu is 50 years old and is only now starting to look like an adult. He slips back into the action star role comfortably. Well, he hasn’t been gone that long. Just last year, he was in the little seen and very underrated ‘Man of Tai Chi’.
I have always liked Keanu (and even attended the Keanu Reeves Retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox early last year). He is in no great rush to give you Capital-A acting. He has never displayed much range, and mostly appears Zen-constipated, but his cool detachment is the perfect fit for this character. And, of course, he is game for the physically demanding stunt work.
Oops, I realized I forgot to mention the plot. John Wick is a bad guy who does bad things to bad people. He retires from his life of crime to live a regular one with his wife. She dies from an unspecified illness, and all he has left of her is a puppy she sent to him as a posthumous gift. After Russian thugs kill his puppy and steal his 1969 Mustang, John Wick returns to his former killing ways as he sets out to find and kill those responsible.
The dog-killing scene was horrifying and didn’t sit well with me. I think a simple dognapping scenario would have given the character enough of a motivation for revenge. Also, we don’t see John Wick’s wife as a fully realized character. She is an idea – an image on a smartphone video. But, her death precipitates everything that follows and gives our anti-hero and us an inherent reason for the bloodshed. What the movie lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for in highly stylized violence; once the main plot has been established, the film consists of John Wick taking out rooms full of guys who should know better than to be in his way.
There is such a high level of technical craftsmanship deployed by directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch that I was shocked to discover ‘John Wick’ is their directorial debut. They know how to frame action. The action doesn’t call attention to itself; thankfully, there isn’t a single shot of slow motion, nor is there much use of the stomach-turning shaky-cam that reduces many contemporary action sequences to visual disarray. Accompanied with Kaleida’s ‘Think’ (and many other terrific soundtrack choices), the filmmakers (both veteran stuntmen) give us a sense that we are watching a bloody, ultra-violent Fred Astaire MGM musical.
Unfortunately, the violence does get repetitive and the film suffers in comparison to ‘The Raid 2’ from earlier this year; ‘The Raid 2’ did a masterful job of incrementally upping the ante before arriving at its breathtaking, and exhausting climax. Here, the stakes remain stagnant throughout and we witness a series of expertly choreographed action sequences, but they don’t build upon each other; one sequence doesn’t try to outdo the standards established in a previous sequence.
But even with this shortcoming, the production design of the picture remains an eyeful. A lot of care and attention to detail went into crafting this fully realized conspiratorial underworld. When John Wick is in mourning, the visual palette consists of desaturated colors; in latter scenes involving the criminal underworld, the colors (particularly green and red) really pop out. And to give a sense of this fully realized world, let me just say that the assassins use gold coins as currency. There is also an upscale downtown hotel that caters to assassins; it appears to be a place of demobilization. Business cannot be conducted within the confines of this establishment, and breaking the rules can have serious consequences.
Despite some talk about karma, the film’s ambitions are aesthetic, not moral; ‘John Wick’ has no delusions of grandeur. This is the sort of R-rated action thriller I found myself missing (and the sort of picture I was hoping ‘The Equalizer’ would be). Hollywood seems preoccupied trying to service its teen-friendly market. Costly CGI action has put old school ruthlessness to rest. I hope to see more movies like ‘John Wick’. And less PG-13 action pictures – the rating is mostly an invitation of half measures and tepidness. QED.