Geez, I’ve already tried to start this article three times. That’s embarrassing. And pointing it out to start the article is cheating. This will either cement my relationship with you, The Reader of This Article, or make you roll your eyes and flee. Or maybe a third thing. Anyways the point of this article is that I saw John Wick. It’s the best Western action movie in recent memory. Though there are a few B-Movies I keep meaning to check out that might provide some competition. But that’s not the point. The last great action movie I saw was The Raid 2: Berandal. John Wick isn’t quite as great as that, but martial arts movies do sort of exist on a separate plane.
John Wick is about an ex-assassin named John Wick. No snarky joke made. John Wick has given up the life for marriage, but his wife is chronically ill and eventually passes away, leaving him with a puppy for company. He goes out for a drive with his dog and his car catches the eye of a couple of young Russian guys. The key young Russian guy, Iosef, is played by Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones). Iosef decides to bring his crew back to John Wick’s house to steal his car. He gets the drop on Wick with a baseball bat and kills John Wick’s dog. John Wick decides to dust off his gear and kill Iosef. The problem is that the brat in question is the son of the head of the Russian mob. This means John Wick gets to kill a lot of people during his quest. A whole lot of people.
The movie was directed by two people. One, David Leitch, is a stuntman. He worked on [deep breath] – Jupiter Ascending, The Bourne Legacy, Ninja Assassin, Speed Racer, Jumper, The Bourne Ultimatum, 300, V for Vendetta, Serenity, Constantine, Van Helsing, The Matrix Revolutions, Daredevil, Ocean’s Eleven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fight Club, and Blade. He has a pretty decent series of second unit direction credits too. His co-director, Chad Stahelski, was a stunt worker on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Man of Tai Chi, The Expendables 2, The Wolverine, The Hunger Games, The Expendables, Iron Man 2, Ninja Assassin, Speed Racer, Live Free or Die Hard, 300, V for Vendetta, Serenity, Constantine, Spider-Man 2, The Matrix Revolutions, The Matrix Reloaded, Angel, The Matrix (Neo’s stunt double!!), Escape from LA, The Crow, and Point Break. They brought in the stunt coordinator from The Wolverine, The Bourne Legacy, The Avengers, Haywire, Iron Man 2, Ninja Assassin, The Bourne Ultimatum, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Serenity, The Bourne Supremacy, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Daredevil, Blade 2, and Angel. So yeah, good action movie pedigrees at play here.
You’d expect action scenes put together by that team to be amazing, and they are. Choreography wise, it’s closer to Haywire than anything else on that list. Mainly gritty grapples and judo-type moves. What’s not grappling is precise and brutal gunplay. It’s grey stuff, with a few standout characteristics. For one the movie makes reloading and limited ammo look super cool. John Wick only ever gets a realistic number of shots out before he has to swap out the cartridge on his gun. In one scene he shoots a guy in the chest then whips the gun upwards to deliver a killing blow, but he’s out of ammo. He doesn’t blink as he reloads his gun and shoots the man in the head before he falls to the floor. It’s incredibly cool.
But that’s not what sustains the movie. What the movie really does well is maintain its precarious tone. If this film is a boat, it’s steering between the sea monster of Trying-Too-Hard and the whirlpool of Skewing-Too-Comical. This movie tries really, really hard to make John Wick come across as cool. That’s incredibly dangerous. Aiming for cool is almost always a recipe for failure. Instead the movie knows exactly what to play straight (John Wick’s motivation), what to take way over-the-top and pulpy (the world building), and what to make comical (the gangsters). Even better it actually hits all these marks perfectly.
The movie is also a great Keanu Reeves vehicle. Reeves is such a weird phenomenon to me, because he’s been in some of the best regarded action movies ever and yet is intensely mocked and derided by movie goers all across the board. Totally underserved. Reeves is likeable, competent, and a pretty interesting figure. By the by it’s well worth seeking out his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, it’s pretty odd and quirky but very awesome. Anyway Reeve is perfectly suited to the role of John Wick, and he really helps make that character. He gets to be frighteningly cool headed; and angry and manic ;and depressed. Kind of a perfect triumvirate. Or what ever the quartet version of that is, because it also affords Keanu plenty of chances to savour the stunt work he always seems so invested in.
Everyone in this movie talks about John Wick in reverent whispers. When Iosef’s father calls his chop-shop owner to menace him about striking Iosef the chop-shop owner simply admits to punching the mobster’s son. “He stole John Wick’s car, and killed his dog.” The powerful mob boss lets out a soft “oh” and hangs up the phone. It’s these sorts of relatively obvious but underplayed moments that let the movie get away with much crazier things. Like when that same mob boss explains in no uncertain terms to Iosef how dangerous his decision was in a scene repeatedly intercut with slow motion shots of John Wick swinging a sledgehammer.
The whole movie is pretty much a perfect action movie. It presents an engaging world, an iconic character, and some incredible set pieces. It’s sparse, well paced, and nice-looking. It’s jarring, adrenaline raising, and memorable. Go see it.