You’re going to wonder why you should bother seeing John Wick. It’s yet another in a seemingly endless cycle of gritty, hard-boiled revenge actioners, starring somewhat unlikely, yet likable actors. In this one, Keanu Reeves returns to the screen as the titular Wick, a former mob assassin who is feared throughout the underworld as a sort of criminal’s boogeyman. But he’s quit the life, married a woman who made him feel alive again, and lives in a really nice house. Sadly, his wife (played in flashback by Bridget Moynahan) passes away, and as her parting gift, she gives him an adorable beagle puppy, named Daisy. In an unfortunately chance encounter, Wick comes across a group of Russian mafia goons who steal his car, beat the sh*t out of him, and — yes — kill his dog.
And then everyone dies.
That’s the short version, and it’s not particularly inventive. Minus the death of the family pet, you’ve seen some variation of it already. Hell, I saw a variation of it last month, and in that I noted that you’d see it all over again sometime soon. I didn’t mean quite this soon. If you’ve seen Taken or The Equalizer or any of the other “former-killer-finds-redemption-through-revenge,” then you’re familiar with the concept. It’s grown tiresome. Which brings us back to my original query: Why should you bother seeing John Wick?
Because it’s goddamn fantastic, that’s why. I say this without any hesitation — of all of the films within the genre that I’ve seen in recent years, John Wick executes (heh) the concept better than any other. Yes, better than Taken. It is an absolutely brutal, grisly, gripping explosion of violence and tension. It’s tightly plotted, dizzyingly paced (the entire film, beginning with his wife’s death, takes place over the course of maybe two or three days, tops). It’s a near-perfect action movie.
What makes it better, you’re asking. Let’s discuss.
First of all, co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski — who made their bones as the action and stunt coordinators on films like 300, V For Vendetta, and The Matrix Trilogy — can direct the hell out of an action scene. John Wick is a surprisingly lovely film in general — it actually features some impressive color palettes and eye-catching bright colors that contrast beautifully with its often dark-hued settings. It allows for the movement and motions of its inhabitants to stand out more as they pass from dark to light and back again, and it creates a great backdrop. But the action itself is absolutely stellar. Reeves is essentially on a rampage throughout the film, wandering through houses and nightclubs and warehouses like a grim-faced force of nature, cutting down everything in his path. But it’s done with such panache and style, and with an innovative and fresh-feeling technique — Wick uses his weapon as an extension of his body, and has a very specific-feeling method, consisting of either a bullet or knife or fist to the body to immobilize the target followed by an inevitable bullet to the head as a coup de grace — that it’s almost balletic to watch.
This is aided by two additional facts — Reeves has a solid grace and athleticism to his movements that makes his beat-the-sh*t-out-of-ten-guys-fu more believable than, say, Denzel Washington. And tying directly into that, as a result of his ability to make the fight scenes believable, Leitch and Stahelski don’t have to rely on as much hyperfast editing, making the action itself more engaging. There’s something immensely satisfying about a full-speed fight scene in a tight little hallway that doesn’t have a single cut, and things like that happen often.
That said, all of this would be somewhat moot if, despite excellent action choreography, it wasn’t a good movie. And while the story itself is a little derivative, it saves itself through a combination of satisfying, if somewhat simplistic dialogue, and a surprisingly excellent cast given the genre. Reeves himself is quite good here, capturing the tortured sadness of a widower nicely before exploding into the quiet rageful creature that propels the rest of the story. But he’d be nothing without a terrific supporting cast, which includes Michael Nyqvist as the Russian mob boss, played with far more charisma and charm than typical, Alfie Allen as his inept son who gets them into the whole mess, Willem Dafoe in an understated role as a fellow assassin, and Dean Winters (the Allstate “Mayhem” guy also known for his turn in Oz and 30 Rock) as Nyquist’s dry-humored lieutenant. Yet even the smaller roles are impressive, with too-short performances given by John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Bridget Regan, Ian McShane, and most notably Adrianne Palicki as an absolutely vicious killer who is tasked with bringing down Wick.
It’s just all so satisfying to enjoy, like the best B-movie you’ve seen in a long time. It borrows from all over the place, but uses a unique style that makes it a successful refresher. John Wick is breathlessly, reverently violent, a gruesome ode to film noir, comic books and crime thrillers that’s filmed with surprising grace. It’s peppered with a terrific cast, it tells a basic story but does it well, and quite frankly it kicks the sh*t out of the majority of other revenge thrillers of the past several years. It’s nasty, brutal fun, and I mean that in the best possible way.