John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife of 5 years to a fatal illness. All he has left in the world is a kick-ass 69′ mustang, his gigantic empty house and a small puppy that his wife had delivered to him shortly after she passed away. Just as John begins to feel normal again and forms a bond with his new canine friend he finds himself bloody and beaten after a chance encounter with some unsavory types who have a strong interest in his vehicle. They took his car away and they killed the puppy his recently deceased wife gave to him, but they left him alive which is the last mistake any of them will ever make.
John’s history isn’t unlike many other revenge flick protagonists in that it is shrouded in a veil of mystery. We know little about him other than he loved his wife, his car and his dog and that once all of that has been taken away from him, we know some s**t is about to go down. He is a man that is not only feared by the police and criminals alike, he is the type of man who is described as not just the embodiment of the boogeyman, but is, “the man you call when you need someone to kill the f**king boogeyman”.
When Wick learns that one of his assailants is none other than a man named Iosef (Alfie Allen in a role that is a extremely similar to his Game of Thrones role as Theon Greyjoy), the son of Russian mob boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), a man of whom John Wick himself used to work for before he left the business and got married to start a new life, he sets out on a mission to kill Iosef and anyone who gets in his way. Knowing what storm is about to befall them, Viggo puts a contract out on Wick for 2 million dollars in hopes that someone will stop him before he wipes out his entire organization trying to get to his son.
Let’s start with the look of the film, as from a purely visual level this is one of the most gorgeous action films to come along in quite some time. Simply from a cinematography point of view the film just oozes cool as we follow John through a number of seedy criminal locations that range from such places as a nightclub with a neon lit underground spa and bath house to an ornate church that is used for more than just Sunday mass. This is one of the most visually striking films of the year and while it isn’t one of those films that will garner awards for its unique look, it certainly helps set the scene for the world that John Wick inhabits and gives the film a distinct visual identity to help separate it from other similar action flicks.
Likewise for the action sequences themselves, which are thankfully shot in a way where we can actually see what is happening from gun shot to gun shot. Eschewing the current (read: unfortunate) Hollywood trend of the past decade of the dreaded shaky-cam, it was a breath of fresh air watching John go from room to room dispatching his foes with the greatest of ease. It allows the viewer to see first hand why the criminal underworld both fears and praises his abilities without wandering what the hell is going on in the process.
Reeves is also to be praised as despite his age he clearly does many of his own stunts and knows his way with around an assortment of weaponry quite convincingly. The fluidity of his movements in close quarters hand to hand combat is only matched by his skillful use of firearms of which the former gets used liberally throughout (headshots are abundant). Seeing people shoot guns at each other can easily become just a bunch of quick cuts and edits that do little to illicit a pulse, but first time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (both experienced stunt coordinators on such films as 300 and The Matrix trilogy) show an expertise with the camera with how they guide the flow of each action sequence through the halls and corridors of each location that is rare for even seasoned action directors.
While an argument can certainly be made that much of John Wick’s appeal lies in its expert execution of its action scenes, cinematography and a more than solid performance by Keanu Reeves, the style over substance argument can be thwarted by the unique criminal underworld that was created for the world of John Wick. Take for instance the hotel that Wick stays at called The Continental which serves as both a guest house for those who work in the criminal underworld but also as a safe haven where violence towards anyone within its walls is heavily frowned upon (often with deadly results). It adds an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise standard set up and delivery which like the visuals help establish a unique identity for the film.
Even more intriguing is the currency used in the world of John Wick. Marked gold coins seem to have more power than any sort of money (which is rarely seen exchanging hands compared to the coins) and further gives credence to the impression that this is almost a sort of fantastical version of New York which only helps support the more ludicrous elements of the film. For example, shootouts occur almost consistently in heavily populated areas throughout the film for extended periods of time and the police only ever make one appearance where even then they seem to be of little importance in an almost comical way. The icing on the cake is a sort of cleaning service that arrives after each shootout to bundle up all the bodies and wipe the scene clean.
All of this adds up to a film with a lavish visual style, some incredible action sequences, a surprising amount of detail creating the world in which the film takes place that give it unique personality, a solid line up of actors including some talented actors (Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane) in very minor but key roles and Keanu Reeves proving once again that he does have some range even if that range doesn’t reach much further than your typical action movie hero stereotype. This is a film that was made with one singular purpose, to light a fire under our asses and cheer John Wick on as he tears through the seedy underbelly of New York looking for the slithering slime that took away his last hope at happiness, and it completely succeeds at it.
About the worst thing you could say about John Wick is that it tells a rather conventional tale of revenge. Relying on are base instincts to rally to John’s cause (I mean come on, they kill the f**king puppy that his deceased wife gave to him!), it is obvious from minute one what the film is about and what we should be taking away from it. If you are looking for a film where you cheer on the hero as he lays waste to dozens upon dozens of slimy bad guys as he works towards his ultimate goal of killing the dude who killed his dog, then I have no doubt John Wick was made just for you. Don’t worry about how you feel about Keanu Reeves as an actor and trust that he is the right man for the job, which he most certainly is.