Having never been much of a fan of Keanu Charles Reeves, I was not expecting too much out of John Wick beyond a lot of shooting, car chases and Canadian-accented mumbling. What I got instead was an excellent souped-up little violent crime-thriller with heart. One that matches the kind of riveting action films coming out of South Korea from the brilliant Hong-jin Nah, like The Chaser (2010) and The Yellow Sea (2012). Kudos has to go to the tandem debutante directing team of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Once lowly stunt men for Reeves, and actors in scores of B martial arts straight-to-DVD movies, these two young Turks’ own a sense of panache, a skill with action and the ability to make us sympathetic to an aging pretty boy with limited talent.
I’m speaking in broad sweeping terms here, but American acting crime/action thrillers seem to have fallen on hard times since Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), each of which shows an America rotting into a state of moral decline, where everybody betrays everybody else from the get-go and any notion of honor among irredeemable criminals, lawyers and especially the police is a joke. Nobody, it seems, from the President down, is respectable. The leads in the two Scorsese movies, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a gangster cursed by the ‘mistake’ of being born Half-Sicilian and half-Irish, and two Irish kids from corrupt police families, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), took the notion of the anti-hero about as far as it can go.
John Wick is a throwback to those great movies of the 60s and 70s when there was still honor among thieves and criminals really believed in a code of conduct, like Steve McQueen’s Doc McCoy in probably the best action heist movie ever, Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), and the awesome Don Siegel heist and betrayal film, Charley Varrick (1973), which turned the basset hound-eyed comedy actor Walter Matthau into an action hero just the one wonderful time.
So John Wick is not going to give you a thrill if you’re looking for something fundamentally different. Plot-wise, there’s the old school formula of one last job/heist/assignment. John Wick, a longtime hard-man-for-hire and sometime assassin, has happily quit his vocation in dogged pursuit of peace and quiet, but naturally gets dragged back in against his will. Having been badgered into retirement by his wife (Bridget Moynahan), who sees a depth to him he cannot, she then gets sick and dies on him. It’s sad.
In the midst of his dignified zen-Keanu mourning, Wick receives an unrequested late night visit to his mansion by a pack of Russian thugs who beat him senseless, steal his favorite car and then, worse, cruelly murder his deceased wife’s last gift, a beagle puppy. But it’s okay… There will be justice!
The rest is a fantastically well choreographed, superbly shot and edited, super-intense action thriller tour-de-force. Wick digs up his stashed arsenal and methodically begins seeking revenge. Derek Kolstad’s script never interrupts unnecessarily as Wick methodically eviscerates hundreds of bad people who, each and every man jack and woman of them, keep coming after him. Calm and boyish still, Reeves has made many mistakes over his career, but this is one he was made to order for. In a time when Liam Neeson and Tom Cruise embarrass themselves, Keanu is comfortably physical at 51, having gone and put himself right back where he was after Speed (1994) and the original The Matrix (1999).
Directors Stahelski and Leitch really show a level of confidence you don’t ordinarily see in first-time directors. Their fantastic fight choreography speaks for itself. Savage fight scenes—like the ones they arranged in the Bourne movies—convince without shaky hand-cam clichés. The cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, is very good at setting up a sense of suspense. De-saturated, almost black and white, for the funeral, he shows a brilliant palate. Another reminder of the seventies is the use of New York City as a location. The parallel criminal world that Wick returns to there is both engaging and beautiful.
If you don’t like violence or crime genre passion plays, I urge you to avoid this little masterpiece. Otherwise, see it now!