It’s been sort of an off-again, on-again year for action movies. We got Lucy (which got more hate than it deserved) and Taken 3 (which deserves all the hate it gets), but there wasn’t really an action movie that stood out last year. Nothing that felt visceral, that had that mad punch adrenaline that comes with a great action feature.
Enter John Wick. I remember seeing the poster for this in theaters, and being curious about it, but there wasn’t a lot of advertising. Keanu Reeves was starring and it was hard to find more than the most basic details, which is what happens those rare times that Keanu goes dark.
A lot of people have problems with Keanu, claiming that he can’t act and certainly not well enough to carry the pathos needed to be the bad guy, even a sympathetic one. I disagree with this assessment. He’s one of the best body actors in media, with a mastery of facial tics and body language that is hard to rival. It’s his accent that makes people think he can’t act, and can’t do dark. Those people have never seen the Watcher, which was a decent little film with Keanu as the villain.
John Wick is much more than a decent little film.
This is a tale of revenge, of karma and violence and consequence. Keanu barely talks, and because of that his body language carries his character. You see the sadness in him, the way he holds his head and slumps his shoulders, you see the fury in him. You always see the fury in him, even if at first you don’t know what it is.
We start with a car crashing into a loading dock, and Keanu falling out. He crumbles out of the car and onto the ground, wounded and bleeding, clutching a cell phone and watching a video on it.
This is Keanu, inhabiting the life of one John Wick. We move back four days and learn that his wife has just died. He looks like a broken toy at her funeral, a shadow pretending to be a man. He doesn’t appear to have a job but he does appear to have money. His wife has left him a puppy to help him mourn and to remind him who he is and what he’s left behind.
We watch him with his new dog, learning to cope with loss and starting to heal. He hasn’t even named the dog yet, but he’s warming up to it. He makes them both bowls of cereal in the morning, then goes to get kibble and stops to buy gas. Someone offers to buy his car, which isn’t for sale. That someone is played by Theon Greyjoy, who doesn’t take Keanu’s polite refusal.
Instead, Theon breaks into Keanu’s house at night, beats him unconscious, murders his dog, and steals his car.
When John wakes up, he comes face to face with the corpse of his dead puppy. He cradles the body. He weeps. Theon, meanwhile, takes the car to an illegal body shop to get the serial number changed. The shop owner recognizes the car, goes pale, asks where Theon got the car. Theon tells him and the shop owner panics and kicks him out.
John shows up at the shop a little later. Everyone stops working and shrinks away from him. The shop owner shakes and offers John a drink, and John speaks with him and leaves. Everyone looks terrified. Theon’s dad is a mob boss, and he calls the shop owner and wants to know why his son was punched and kicked out, so the shop owner tells him.
“Your son stole John Wick’s car,” the shop owner says. “And he killed his dog.”
The old man accepts this with a whisper. He looks shaken. He looks like a death row inmate who’s stay of execution has been annulled and is about to be executed, right then, and there is nothing he can do about it.
He confronts his son, tells him who John Wick is – not the boogeyman, but the man you send to kill the boogeyman. And John Wick spends the rest of the movie indulging in terrible violence, a looming presence that shambles from one massacre to the next. He is a force of nature, something that no one can stop or reason with.
That set-up and follow through would be enough to make John Wick a good action movie. John Wick doesn’t want to settle for being a good action movie – it wants to be a great one, the sort of thing that legends are built on. It succeeds.
We’re given a brush of depth, the idea of a parallel world known only to a select few where old world manners and mores are honored and respected, where gold coins and a name are the only valid currencies. We see people with specialized jobs that move in and around that world, even around the periphiary, and get a sense that those few that know of it and aren’t a part of it know enough to keep quiet. We get a sense of history, old relationships that are older than the glimpse we’re getting and will continue once we leave the theater.
This is an organic world, fully fleshed out and realized, a flirtatious lover who gives you just enough to make you obsessed and leave you gasping for more. There’s art to this movie, in the sense of history and bloodshed that permeates every frame, the style of it. It’s everything Taken wanted to be, an action movie of quiet substance and frightening resolve.
Everything in this film serves the story, from the colors in the background to the subtle musical cues that underlie the soundtrack. The camera angles, those moments where the movie gives you a chance to catch your breath before throwing you back into the meat grinder. This movie is a killing floor, a place where a simple man who found redemption chances what he’s found to right a terrible wrong – and not just to himself, even if that is what starts him on this mad quest.
See this movie. I cannot urge you enough.
A single word of caution – the opening is heartbreaking. The relentless ruthless nature of Theon and friends justifies the violence that follows, which means it has to be horrible. And it is horrible. The implied cruelty here will be hard to stomach. The revenge that follows makes doing so worth it.[box]
The Good: The acting, lighting, script, direction, soundtrack, casting… everything.
The Bad: Nothing. Not one thing.
The Verdict: Easily the best pure action movie since Dredd.[/box]