3 out of 5
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Action ballet: pretty apt.
John Wick’s action scenes are marvelously choreographed. The amount of carnage committed under the eye of a smooth, confident camera that allows you to follow – and see – every block, lock, and headshot is stunning, not too mention that you get to witness a lot of Keanu actually in frame for the same. The actor’s dedication to his fight craft is admirable, and the un-vascular, regular dude natural machismo he exudes is part of why he’s worked so well for audiences as our proxy in his action / sci-fi flicks. Reeves may not stray far from his script (this is the normal clause to add), but there’s nothing wrong with doing what you do well, especially when its so genuine and convincing.
So can we buy Mr. Reeves as John Wick, retired clean-up man disgruntledly coming out of retirement to revenge a slight? Of course. And though the script very occasionally achieves the sane grace as its action sequences, it is more often a tad tedious in setting up the pins for Wick to knock down, despite some brilliant flourishes like a hotel in New York specifically for guests of a killy kind, and the thin-smiling camaraderie between its tenants.
John Wick does set up the stakes correctly at the outset: Murdered family or loves are the common causes, and can sometimes seem like shallow motivations when all the slaughter is done. So John is retired, and we set his wife in the recent past, having died of an illness, the details of which are unimportant, but are made clear enough through sparse flashback. A drive around town brings him afoul of some gangstery upstarts, obviously unaware of Wick’s ststus and thus making it their occupation to pay him a nighttime beat-ya-up-and-steal-your-car visit. …And kill his dog. …A puppy, which was a final gift from his wife. Stakes set, motherfucker.
Things from here play out plotwise mostly as would be expected, with John killing his way through a mob family to get at that upstart, and the flick asserts its originality once more by trying to pace things appropriately – spacing out the fights – and tossing different setup wrinkles at us instead of upping the fight scope. So one fight might be more guns, one might be grappling, one might be knives, etc. This balance is especially notable in the concluding fight, which would be a spoiler to clarify. Let it suffice to say that Wick, the film, has already proven its chops by the time we get to that point.
But despite the flashes of originality and the breathless choreography, that it hews to both the “pro comes out of retirement” and vengeance tropes causes the plot to stumble over itself somewhat. The myth surrounding John Wick seems to frighten everyone, other hit men included, and yet they go after Wick en masse anyway. Extending from this, there seemed to be a disconnect with how the dog-killer’s actions are perceived by his father / boss – prompting a ‘yer dead to me’ type of brush-off – and then how contracts are taken out on Wick and the son put into hiding anyway. Between the lines, it’s family, blah blah blah, but going past the holy 90 minute mark to make room for such scenes but then not fully explore them makes the dramatic moments fall somewhat flat.
In regards to Wick himself, thr film rightfully doesn’t make John invincible, but he seems to get taken down quite easily several times so as to make his notoriety a bit confusing. Again, there are justifications that could be made, but it was another conflict that prevented the film from being able to truly settle into action or comedy or action / comedy, as though a little mixed on how the creators wanted it to be perceived.
However, none of this is a recommendation against the film. John Wick essentially fumbles the story ball, a trips over its tone here and there, but it gets the major things right, and elevates what can be expected from action flicks that don’t star Liam Neeson or premiere under a Marvel / DC banner. Catching this flick at random is one of those grand surprises like Equilibrium: Sure, it carries its B-movie card around, but you’re so floored by its positives it can’t stop you from telling others to check it out.