Ah, who doesn’t love a good revenge B-movie now and then? Getting away from the upcoming season of Oscarbait, your Shakespearian adaptations and sci-fi blockbusters, the other night I decided I really just wanted to see a guy with a grudge mow through some other guys in an effort to avenge that grudge. And, finally, having missed out on its brief theatrical run in Ireland way back in April, John Wick finally became available for rent on streaming options. I had heard a lot of good things about John Wick from various sources, and while it is always possible for films of this nature to become a blood-strewn mess, I was really looking forward to catching up with this one.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recently bereaved husband, receives a puppy as a last gift from his deceased wife, to help him love again and get beyond his grief. But all such ideas are shattered when a group of Russian mobsters, led by the arrogant Iosef (Alfie Allen), break into Wick’s home in order to steal his prized car, killing the dog in the process. Big mistake on their part: Wick is actually a retired hitman, of truly legendary reputation, having once worked for Iosef’s kingpin father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Soon, Wick’s on a mission to track down Iosef, killing everyone who gets in his way.
This is very much the architype of the revenge B-movie in many ways, but boy does John Wick know how to do it with style. Having honed their skills as fight choreographers on the Matrix trilogy, where they established a working relationship with Keanu Reeves, director Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have come up with something altogether intriguing, a western action film that doesn’t flinch from the action like so many others, and occasionally manages to inject some much needed gloss into a sadly declined genre.
Things don’t start well for John Wick though. The same day I watched the Rick and Morty episode “Look Who’s Purging Now” that specifically mocks hackneyed writing techniques like the “Three Weeks Earlier” in medias res opening, I caught John Wick, which, while lacking the eponymous title card, does pull the same thing. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are right: it is a lazy, overused device to inject some false suspense, and I groaned when I saw John Wick open with it.
Having established that there was no threat to a hero for a while, John Wick actually manages to come back from the brink and turn itself into a decent watch. Taking its time with the set-up – a fairly substantial portion of the film goes by before any guns are drawn or blood is shed – we actually get to know the title character. I think John Wick would be a good film to watch without any foreknowledge of what is to come: you could get an eerie sense from the opening scenes, as Wick goes about burying his recently deceased wife. It isn’t the bereavement though, with Wick seeming out of place in the confines of his very fancy home. Later, after the central driving event of the plot occurs, we spend time just hearing people talk about Wick – nicknamed the “Bogeyman” by his former employers – and come to slowly fear his capability long before he pulls a trigger.
And a lot of that is, honestly, down to Reeves himself. I suppose Reeves is a bit of an enigma in Hollywood: he’s been fairly consistent in terms of box-office draw over the years, but has never really been all that respected in terms of acting talent, I think it is fair to say. Some of this is merited: his most famous roles, from Speed to The Matrix, have never really required all that much. But there have been other roles where Reeves has shown that has the goods, though they have never gotten all that much attention. I speak of things like A Scanner Darkly and the underrated Constantine. In John Wick, while much of the film requires him to be in the Neo-like state of one man against many, there are a few moments, particularly at the beginning, that Reeves show’s that more emotional side of him, that versatility that others just don’t see in some of his work. His reaction to his wife’s death and funeral comes first with a sort of awed detachment, a man so used to death but unused to the practical realities of dealing with it. But when “Daisy” arrives, the tears come, the only time that they do. These are brief moments, and soon replaced by a chillingly believable sternness in the face of all the people Wick believes that he needs to kill, but they show that Reeves really is not without his merits as an actor, even if he is, essentially, typecast when it comes to his more notable roles.
The cliché of the old criminal drawn, somewhat unwillingly, back into the business is a character well represented on-screen, but John Wick does a few things to make the audience interested, in regards motivation. More often than not, the wife, kids, or both have been killed or kidnapped by the bad guys and the main character wants revenge for this. But in John Wick, Wick’s wife has died of unelaborated upon medical problems: he’s just a man grieving, and a brief contact with his old mentor – a steely eyed Willem DaFoe, haven’t seen him in a while – is more awkward than promising of future bloodspot. And then there is the adorable puppy that Wick receives from his wife as a last gift.
The overflow of emotion in these early moments, some of it genuinely touching, some of it more contrived, stands as a marked contrast to the villains, all black leather, cigarettes and sneers. That they would break into Wick’s home, at a time of grieving, just to steal his car might have been enough to mark out the contrast, but then they go and kill the dog – dog lovers beware, this film will probably horrify you. And so, without any human blood being shed in anger, the audience is given lots of reasons to hate the antagonists and to back John Wick, though to what extent might be blurry. The coming war is really more about principle than revenge, a battle between the more civilised world that Wick inhabits at the start and the barbarity of the hitman universe. Wick has an insatiable need for recompense against Iosef, and in seeking this he slips into the barbarity with abandon. And as the body count starts getting higher and higher, that audience can begin to question whether Wick is truly justified, or if he should just accept the oft repeated statement made to him: “It was just a fucking dog” (indeed, the script is brutally to the point at moments, but that is exactly what is needed for a film of this nature, which is never going to be defined by its word play).
That contrast of civility and barbarity is all over John Wick. Its assassin world, with its varied characters and factions, is full of the trapping of sophistication: nice cars, nice hotels, beautiful suits, beautiful women, customs, traditions, pledges of honour. There are rules to this game, as is made clear, with its safe zones, good conduct and the issuing of retaliation or punishment for those straying outside the lines. But it is all fake: when the shots start ringing out, when the explosions flare and the blood spurts, the glamour of civility goes up in smoke, and the barbarity comes. The characters of John Wick are at pains to put on a nice appearance, as if to hide the fact that the things they do are so terrible. This contrast finds its confluence in Wick himself, a man who dresses up nice and walks the walk straight out of an aftershave ad. But he, more than anyone else, willingly flings himself into a bloody battle. The contrast is interesting to see, and propels John Wick along nicely.
The film is thus dominated by sequences where it is John Wick against the world, shooting and fighting his way through his own home, hotels, nightclubs and industrial estates. The gun fu-esque fight sequences are a welcome improvement on the bombastic OTT stuff like Equilibrium, and the refusal of the directors to “cut around the punch” is also to be welcomed. The result is visceral violence, which the production team really want to you to feel: the sheer amount of headshots, the emphasis on bodies after the fact and the brutal hand-to-hand that occasionally interjects all combine to make this very “kinetic” experience, as I have seen the film described so often. And with all that comes a confident job behind the camera in other ways, steady cinematography, interesting locales and sets that provide potent backdrops, such as in the way the dark Wick seems so alien in his own perfect apartment, which crumbles in the first action scene, like the façade that it is Wick’s civilised life.
The essential attraction of the revenge subgenre has always been a desire to see this seemingly God-like power in action, to take perverse viewing pleasure in vicarious living, with this man who has had enough, won’t take it anymore, and has the ability to crush every asshole who has ever wronged him. And John Wick really is the best recent take to this idea. It must be admitted that the central idea is rather extreme in ideology, but that’s why most enjoy it on the screen, since they can’t practise in reality.
The film goes a bit off the rails as things progress though. The last act is a muddle: the films natural ending point occurs too soon, and for the next half hour or so everything that follows seems very tacked on, like the production team was coming up with stuff on the fly while filming. John Wick tries to really push a particular antagonist, an opposing assassin played by Adrianne Palicki, as a major threat to Wick, but she’s not all that really, and Palicki has been given better roles to work with in the past, this vapid soulless killer rather beneath her if I’m being honest. Indeed, John Wick struggles with its female characters, in a genre that, for too long, has been so male-orientated: beyond Palicki, there is only the brief glimpses of Wick’s wife in video and flashback, Bridget Moynahan becoming an idealistic vision of a perfect past, put up on a pedestal.
There is also the rest of the supporting cast. Nyqvist is little known to western audience I think – I last saw him in the rather underwhelming Europa Report – but I know that he is worth more to a production than the rather by-the-books gentleman crimelord that he embodies here. A host of decent actors – Dean Winters, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo to name a few – go by without really making all that much of a mark, with the lone exception being Alfie Allen as the nominally main antagonist, the arrogant crimelord Jr, using much of that early experience of Theon Greyjoy in the process.
John Wick doesn’t know the correct point at which to call it a day, which is a shame, but at least the very end hits the right emotionally satisfying note, leaving off with both a sense of finality and the possibility of sequels (indeed, it seems like Summit Entertainment are looking to turn John Wick into a proper franchise). John Wick leaves off with the same sense of style and panache that it arrived with, little noting the blood that has been shed along the way.
If you’re looking for the right kind of modern B-movie, a revenge flick with plenty of really good action and set-piece sequences, then you can look no further. Sure, the supporting cast, for the most part, arte a bit of a let-down, and something like John Wick could never ever be truly considered cinema at its finest. But it isn’t without a heart, thanks to the early patience in the set-up, and the early performance of its leading man, and it isn’t entirely without a brain either, with that recurring theme of civilised crime clashing with barbaric reality. Some good visual direction and a passable script do the rest. I could certainly stand to watch a bit of this in the future, and I think those in the mood will enjoy watching a bit of this right now. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).