action films, Adrianne Palicki, Alfie Allen, Best of 2014, Chad Stahelski, cinema, Clarke Peters, co-directors, David Leitch, dead pets, dead wife, Dean Winters, Derek Kolstad, directorial debut, Edge of Tomorrow, father-son relationships, favorite films, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, hitmen, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, John Wick, Keanu Reeves, Lance Reddick, Michael Nyqvist, Movies, revenge, Russian mobsters, stolen car, stunt performers, The Matrix, The Raid 2, violent films, Willem Dafoe
In a way, you almost have to feel a little sorry for the Russian mobsters in John Wick (2014): all they want to do is steal a guy’s sweet Mustang and kill his adorable puppy…you know, nothing too outrageous or outside the bounds of polite society, especially when you’re rich, crooked and used to getting your way. And how do these unsung heroes get repaid? Why, the ungrateful bastard up and massacres every last one of ’em with extreme prejudice…what a jerk!
As singular of purpose as its titular “boogeyman,” John Wick, the movie, is streamlined, relentless, fearless film-making at its very best. It has but two goals: to kick your ass and melt your fucking face off, not necessarily in that order. It’s the best comic adaptation ever, despite being based on an original screenplay by Derek Kolstad. It’s a flawless, extravagant live version of the Hitman video games, despite having nothing whatsoever to do with that property. It would be the single, greatest action flick of 2014 if it weren’t for Edge of Tomorrow and The Raid 2…even then, it still might be. John Wick is a worthy successor to that other little film that Keanu made once, The Matrix (1999), featuring some unbelievably epic, instantly classic action setpieces. It’s a near flawless bit of filmcraft, equal parts beautiful and brutal, as if Takashi Miike and Nicolas Winding Refn decided to collaborate on an update of old spaghetti Westerns. In other words: John Wick is one helluva movie.
Plot-wise, the film is as streamlined as the mean-spirited ’80s revenge flicks that it draws so much inspiration from: former mob hitman, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), has been out of the “biz” since he met and married the love of his life. After pulling off one last, “impossible” assignment for Russian mob lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, coming off like a fiendish combo of Bond super-villain and Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World”), John is granted “early retirement” and left to enjoy his newly peaceful life. After his beloved wife dies, however, poor John is despondent, left to mope around in the sad wreckage of his lonely lifestyle. In the best spirit of strong, silent heroes, John is inwardly broken, even if he’s outwardly as serene as a still lake.
Relief comes in the form of a posthumous gift from his wife, an adorable, little puppy that comes with the heartfelt request that John “learn to love something else.” He does, of course, and the scenes involving the playful little critter and the gruff former hitman (he gives his new puppy a bowl of cereal, complete with milk, since that’s what he’s having, natch) are impossibly sweet without coming off as overly saccharine. John’s happy and life is good. This, of course, can’t last: we’re not in that kind of a universe. Instead, John ends up running into a group of Russian thugs at the gas station, including Viggo’s worthless, hot-headed, shit-heels of a son, Josef (Alfie Allen). Josef has his eyes on John’s kickass black Mustang (who doesn’t?!) but John’s not looking to sell. After leveling a veiled threat against John, Josef and the others take their leave. The issue, of course, is far from over.
That night, as he lets his puppy out to do its business, John is ambushed by a group of masked intruders, led by Josef. After being knocked unconscious, John wakes to find his beloved puppy murdered and his car missing: his eyes go hard, a placid lake freezing into jagged ice. From that point on, John has only one mission: find and destroy every last person involved with killing his dog. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Josef’s father: he might think his son is a worthless shit, too, but he’s his worthless shit and he’ll be damned if any “former employee” is going to wear his skin like a pelt. Offering a $2 million reward for John’s head, Viggo sits back, happy to watch the sparks fly. The problem with sparks, of course, is that they often start fires: in no time flat, Viggo is watching his precious, privileged world burn to cinders before his eyes. You see, John Wick is the very personification of Death…and Death is coming for each and every one of them, one bloody, dead body at a time.
And that’s it, folks. Sure, we get introduced to subsidiary characters like Aurelio (John Leguizamo), the faithful chop-shop owner; Marcus (Willem Dafoe), John’s old friend/peer and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), the deadpan assassin who shoots first and smirks later. In a nutshell, though, this is Keanu’s movie, through and through. With a sense of physicality and sheer badassitude that’s been sorely missed since the glory days of his performance as Neo, Keanu is a complete force of nature, a dour, lethal, balletic blur of violence who shoots, stabs, bludgeons and mauls his way through a seemingly endless array of heavily armed foes. In the same way that Clint Eastwood was the very personification of violent death in his glory years, so, too, is Keanu’s John Wick: part Man With No Man, part Terminator, all killer, no filler.
As an action film, John Wick is practically peerless, so “next-level” as to be casually groundbreaking. During one amazing setpiece, John fights a never-ending wave of attackers in the foyer of a busy nightclub: the scene is set to a pounding EDM score and everything is so immaculately choreographed and timed that it feels like the world’s most killer music video. As the musical beats collide with the gun shots and bone breaks, the whole thing assumes an organic totality that positively intoxicating. Watching the scene, I experienced the same sort of heady thrill that I got when I was a kid and pounded through Eastwood, Bronson and Bruce Lee films like they were going out of style. Unlike most modern action films, all of the fight sequences in John Wick feel real and impossibly solid: despite the hyper-kinetic flow of the film, there’s nothing headache-inducing about the style, whatsoever. To be honest, I sort of wish that other action filmmakers would study under the apt tutelage of Wick’s dual directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch: this, as far as I’m concerned, is how you shoot action/fight sequences.
As for Stahelski and Leitch, suffice to say that I was blown away when I discovered that the filmmakers responsible for this utterly mind-blowing treat were former stuntmen (they worked with Keanu on The Matrix, along with roughly a billion other projects over the last 20 years): aside from some second-unit credits, this was their debut feature. In a word: wow. With credentials like that, it makes sense that the film would be filled with fantastic fight sequences: that’s their bread and butter. The amazing thing about John Wick ends up being how consistently strong the entire film is: certain sequences reminded me of nothing less than Refn’s Drive (2011) and that’s high praise, indeed. The film has a great, evocative look, thanks to Midnight Meat Train (2008) cinematographer Jonathan Sela (Meat Train was another film that looked like a billion bucks) : all cool colors, dusky blues and red neon, John Wick is a real feast for the eyes. Add in a tense, pounding electro score by soundtrack maven/Marilyn Manson bandmate Tayler Bates and you have a film that looks and sounds like the equivalent of a finely tuned, vintage muscle car: the dictionary definition of badass.
If it wasn’t rather obvious from all of the above, let me sum up my feelings on John Wick thusly: I absolutely adored everything about this movie. As someone who feels that Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is pretty much the apex of comic book films (sorry, folks: Keaton’s Batman or bust, for me), John Wick checked off every single item off my “must have” list. Hateful, evil, over-the-top villains? Check. Ruthless, avenging angel hero? Check. Terminally cool production design? Yep. Underlying element of sadness? Gotta have it. Matter-of-fact, unflinching attitude towards violence? Uh huh. Watching John Wick, I felt like I was 10-years-old again: sitting on the edge of my seat, shouting at the screen and throwing my fist in the air every couple of minutes, this was the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a while.
If you grew up on ’70s, ’80s and ’90s action flicks, you’d be hard pressed to find a better modern representation of said films than John Wick: in every way, the film is an instant classic and deserves its own place in the canon, with the rest of the greats. While I felt that Edge of Tomorrow was a rip-roaring good-time, John Wick is, at heart, much more my type of film. Apparently, the scuttlebutt around the water cooler is that a sequel is already in the works: in this case, the only thing I can say is…bring it on. If Stahelski, Leitch and Keanu have another film like this in them, it runs a very real risk of knocking the earth off its axis: no way I’d miss that!