John Wick (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

John Wick (2014) poster

A well-made and effective action movie, with fight sequences which are kinetic and brutal in ways that surprisingly few films actually manage. I don’t care if Paul Greengrass is the greatest stylist since King Hu; when I watch an action movie, I want to see the goddamn action, and John Wick lets me see the goddamn action.

Sure, this tale of a revenge-seeking ex-hitman (and recent widower) hits exactly the beats you’d expect: Sad Keanu, Mad Keanu, Kung-Fu Keanu. But it also gives Reeves an archetypal role that turns his tendency to underplay into a strength, while still allowing him room to emote without losing his Cool Guy status.

Big-budget Hollywood productions tend to cast for acting talent and/or star power, relying on the second unit to sell the spectacle. “Stunt team” productions tend to surround Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa almost exclusively with amazing martial artists, while settling for more…functional performances overall. John Wick splits the difference, and doubles down on the stunt/actor dichotomy. Keanu plows through waves of clones in black suits in order to converse with the real players in the criminal underworld, all of whom are played by recognizable character actors with unique looks and points of view.

The conceit of a criminal fraternity straight out of a Teens and Up comic book is enhanced by the gorgeous art direction and cinematography. The world of John Wick is that of a stark, stylized New York (and New Jersey!) in which there are no innocent bystanders, only hardcases of all types skulking in time to a dance/rock beat under a neon-noir glow.

Best of all for this kind of movie, the action is clean and generally easy to read in a way that I, at least, find deeply satisfying. The hand-to-hand combat goes a beat “too long” on occasion as a result, but it feels messily realistic rather than self-indulgent on the part of the fight choreographer. That same relative restraint is also present in the frequent gunplay. While the violence is often bloody, it never seems excessively gory. Unlike in, say, The Raid 2, I never found myself wondering when John Wick—and all the poor doomed bastards who aren’t John Wick—would stop trying to gross out the audience, and get back to killing people. Likewise, despite featuring more headshots than your average zombie flick, the protagonist’s reliance on “control shots” seems appropriate given his background as a cold-blooded killer for a Russian mafiya type.

Finally, it helps significantly that unlike its titular protagonist, John Wick has a sense of humor. This is, after all, a film in which the proximate cause for the Roaring Rampage of Revenge is literally “they stole my car and killed my dog,” and which features a radio announcer blandly reporting the “seven inches of rain” that have drenched New York over the course of the film. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a movie as deliberately made and self-aware as John Wick.