Directed by Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Regan, Bridget Moynahan, Jason Isaacs, Willem Dafoe, Alfie Allen, Dean Winters, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Nyqvist, Lance Reddick, Toby Leonard Moore, Keith Jardine, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo. Written by Derek Kolstad.
A few weeks ago, I lamented that Denzel Washington’s character didn’t have enough motivation for taking on the entire Russian mafia and racking up a dozens-high body count during his revenge-fueled rampage in The Equalizer. The Russians roughed up a teen prostitute, which wasn’t too nice, but hardly the type of Death Wish-catalyst we usually get in a bloody revenge picture.
In John Wick, Keanu Reeves’ titular character takes on roughly the same villains, though the setting has changed from Boston to New York/New Jersey. Hollywood seems to have taken notice of the current political climate in Eastern Europe, and two-and-a-half decades after the end of the Cold War evil Russian villains are now back in vogue.
But here, they’re too evil: as opposed to The Equalizer, Keanu’s John Wick has too much motivation to go on an Russian-targeted kill-crazy spree.
As the film opens, John is burying his wife, who has just died of cancer (no, the Russians didn’t do that). When he gets home on the day of the funeral, he receives a package and a letter from his wife: she didn’t want him to go through the mourning process alone, so her final gift to him is a too-cute little beagle puppy who he can share his grief with. Awww.
And then… well, you would never think the filmmakers would go there, unless you’ve seen the trailer to John Wick. Yes, a group of scumbag Russian youths break into John’s place to steal his vintage car, and just to make a point they rough up John and… ugh. And it’s not enough for the film to have them brutally kill the innocent months-old puppy – no, the dog must also symbolically represent his dead wife.
Now, there’s no amount of revenge that could take place over the next two hours that could satisfy our bloodlust over the puppy killing, and the ultimate showdown between John and chief Russian scumbag Iosef Tarasov anticlimactically emphasizes that. But Iosef is played by Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy, and his characters’ endless torture over the past couple seasons on that show will have to suffice.
Now, where The Equalizer attempted to maintain some semblance of reality, John Wick goes in the other direction entirely. John is, of course, an ex-assassin of the highest imaginable skill, with a hidden cache of weaponry under the cement in his basement. As he goes after the mob, the mob – led by Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) – comes after him, and John holes up in a hotel for assassins. This hotel is run by Winston (Ian McShane) and managed by Charon (Lance Reddick), and comes with the stipulation that no violence will be perpetrated on hotel grounds lest blah blah blah.
It’s at this point that the film loses any connection with reality; as more assassins – including characters played by Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki – are recruited to take on Wick, the screenplay (by debut scribe Derek Kolstad) starts shooting for offbeat comedy rather than revenge drama, and the film threatens to turn into Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.
I usually hate this kind of Mad Dog Time/Lucky Number Slevin post-Tarantino too-cool-for-school mentality, and sure-enough, it keeps John Wick at arms’ length throughout (it should be noted that the best portion of the film – the first half hour or so – is told completely straight). But both Reeves and Nyqvist have the perfect deadpan disposition for the material, and more often than not the comedic beats hit the right notes.
There is one big plus here, however. The film was directed by stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (who was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix), and the action sequences are beautifully choreographed, shot, performed and edited: we are always aware of what is happening and where the characters are, and there’s a rare and wonderful amount of practical stunt and effects work on the screen. Reeves practices a kind of gun-fu not dissimilar to the one employed by Christian Bale in Equilibrium, and whenever the film sticks to the action, it keeps us entertained.
John Wick won’t wow you, but it’s a flip and (mostly) fun little B-movie actioner writ large. This fall’s big three revenge pictures (the other two being The Equalizer and the Liam Neeson-starring A Walk Among the Tombstones, which hits local screens next week) are markedly different in execution, but remarkably similar in overall quality. Still, I enjoyed this one the least by just a slight margin.