A breath of fresh air in the American action movie landscape, John Wick delivers on everything it sets out to do.
The dog should not have any actual weight prescribed to it. It should just be a MacGuffin, a paper-thin excuse for yet another violent revenge flick, a self-parodying barrel-scraper that induces unintended/perfectly intentional laughter whenever it’s brought up for whatever reason. That’s how this should go. That’s how this is apparently supposed to go, if you purely subscribe to the American action movie way of doing things. The catalyst for the violence has long since stopped mattering to the majority of mid-level non-blockbuster action movies. Nobody really cares what motivates the (nearly always) grizzled white man to whip out their pistol and start painting the sets red, right, so why invest any meaning into it anymore? Just pick the most obvious tropes – usually involving the fridging or kidnapping of women – and away we go.
“F*ck that,” says John Wick, which gets into its head this crazy little concept that if you actually invest something into the world and characters and set-up for that violence, then the violence might carry legitimate weight beyond a reflexive appreciation for cool bloodshed. So the dog is still a MacGuffin – whatever is the instigator for the revenge in these films always is – but it’s one that carries legitimate emotional attachment for John Wick (Keanu Reeves) himself. It’s more than just a parting gift from his recently-deceased wife to him, it’s the last tangible evidence that he can and does deserve the better life he escaped his mob days for. That he can be actually be a good person and that the universe won’t rip his wife from him totally as recompense for his sins. That he won’t be alone.
That’s why Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) ordering its killing for no other reason than its being loud is such a blow to John. It’s his worst fears coming true, his hope being extinguished, a grizzly reminder that he cannot escape and does not deserve to escape, that he will be forever alone. And the film takes great pains to communicate this to the viewer. A relatively decent stretch of the opening of the movie is dedicated to demonstrating John’s solemn grieving and how the dog, and what it represents, is the thing that finally causes him to break that stoicism and grieve like a human instead of a force of nature. It doesn’t matter that he has Daisy for barely a day before she’s taken from him, it still f*cking hurts, as his rather terrifying mid-film monologue to Viggo Tasarov (Michael Nyqvist) demonstrates.
Plus, that dog is so f*cking cute it’s unreal.
That kind of attention to detail is why John Wick is so bloody good and such a wonderful breath of fresh air in the non-blockbuster American action movie landscape. This is not a film that simply slaps together the barest vestiges of plot, character and theme, attaches them either side of a rote series of action beats, stretches the thing out to an uncomfortably long time, and then calls it a day. This is a film that has real genuine effort put into everything, a film made by people who wanted to tell a genuine story, with a series of themes and characters they genuinely wanted to see through, and action that helps tell that story instead of simply marking time.
Specifically, the world of John Wick is a wonderful concoction. A seedy yet high-class and professional world of connected and business-like mob members, gangsters, and code-honouring hitmen and hitwomen. Everyone knows each other, all put up the veneer of being (or genuinely are) respectful to one another, and most hang out in a specially decked-out and designated neutral ground hotel in upscale New York called The Continental with its own bar, concierge (Lance Reddick), and a highly-trained medic on standby. Services are paid for in special gold coins, certain cops are acutely aware of what goes on and know exactly what the smart response is, and there are swift and severe punishments for breaking any rules or codes of ethics.
It’s extremely well drawn and sketched out, but it doesn’t overwhelm the film, it never overtakes the film barring a scene or two of loose end wrap-ups. This is all instead world-building that correctly sits on the sidelines in favour of Wick’s personal journey of revenge and Viggo’s seemingly mandatory attempts to prevent said revenge. The film does not stop for extended periods of time to explain the history of The Continental, how the cleaners work, and how everybody knows each other. These things exist and how they exist is told through actions instead of straight exposition. Most similar action films wouldn’t even attempt this level of world-building, let alone trying to integrate it this smoothly, and the fact that John Wick does so demonstrates just how much genuine effort and love went into this thing.
Following on from that, this movie looks amazing! The way that it plays with colours and the warmth of such to tell its story as well as add stylish flourishes during the rare instances in which a shower of red gore decorates a part of the scenery is subtly clever stuff, but it’s the action scenes that really stick out above all else. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – the latter of which is not credited because weird DGA rules – shoot their action scenes much like how Soderbergh shot Haywire’s action scenes: clean and clear where every shot has been carefully arranged to frame the action, and shaky-cam is very sparsely-deployed and never in such a way that the action on screen is obscured or hard to follow. It’s so controlled and thought-out in a way that most action films really aren’t nowadays; I’m reminded a lot of The Raid 2, in that respect.
But with that said, John Wick is still a load of fun. It takes itself seriously when it needs to, but knows when to kick back and just have some good old fashioned fun. Much of the world is played for wonderful deadpan humour, and the action scenes themselves are a tonne of fun thanks to clever staging and that stylish verve which cribs a lot from classic John Woo gun-fu films. There’s a kind of grace and balletic nature to proceedings, as John tears his way through waves of goons with a precision and rhythm that has the feel of an extended and tight dance number, a feeling helped by the way that Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richards’ score synchronises extremely well with the action. Any time the pacing is thrown off, like with a poorly-timed reload or if John ever takes a hit or if a knife is brought into play, it feels jarring yet far more alive than yet another scrappy brawl with a jittery camera would be.
Praise must also go to Keanu Reeves as Wick himself. On paper, the film wouldn’t seem to ask him to do much except glower angrily at things and be a walking badass, but Reeves also makes sure to keep John’s grief bubbling just under the surface, informing nearly everything the character does and letting it explode in a mid-film monologue that is some of his best work in forever and is quite possibly the most terrifying I’ve ever found him. He’s obviously given help by Derek Kolstad’s great script, but Reeves still works his ass off to imbue John Wick with a depth that most other actors in this role likely wouldn’t have bothered trying. He’s backed up on all sides by a uniformly excellent supporting cast – Michael Nyqvist is brilliant as the father who only seems to want to protect his son out of obligation, Alfie Allen is delightfully turd-like, Adrianne Palicki has a lot of fun as an overly-cocky femme fatale, among others – but he is the centre and he nails it completely.
When I first heard about John Wick a good eight or so months ago, it was from that trailer and I was sold completely because it sounded like a dumb silly action film, and I like me a good dumb silly action film. But John Wick turns out to be way smarter than that. What plays as ridiculous in a trailer is revealed to be understandable in context, the work of a film that invests enough emotion and depth and attention to detail in its world to make the revenge rampage matter. This is a film that remembers that violence is more affecting and more gripping when affixed to actually interesting characters and worlds than when it’s just thrown up on screen with a minimal amount of context. That’s already enough to recommend John Wick, but the fact that the construction of those action scenes also has that same love and care and detail paid to it? Well, that causes this to be one of the best pure action films I’ve seen so far this decade.
I love this movie, do not miss out on it.
Callie Petch is a twenty-something trying to be sure.