John Wick (dir. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski)

Posted: October 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

I have a hard time remembering the last great straight-ahead action movie.  Recently, superheroes, sci-fi, and winking satire (“The Expendables”) have taken over when we look to films that feature gunplay, martial arts, and explosions.  The age of Rambo and “Die Hard” in the 80s has in my lifetime transformed into the age of “The Matrix” and “The Avengers” presently.  That’s not to say I dislike those films, or want less films of that type (aside from car chases, explosions, and digital people fighting digital people, I have yet to grow tired of sci-fi or superhero action), just that I miss the days where you had straight-ahead action films where you had a little comedy, a lot of drama, and a mix of gun violence (which I despise in real life but love in films, much like serial killers) and close-quarters hand-to-hand combat.

I perhaps didn’t know how much I missed this until I saw “John Wick”, an action film that feels like a breath of fresh air.  Sure, “Taken” has its supporters (I found the film’s pacing to be way too fast, resulting in a mediocre effort), as does “The Transporter” series (unseen by me).  The last “Rambo” film was pretty good, but that might fit more into the War Film genre, of which post-9/11 Hollywood has given us plenty of and rather bores me when it only exists to pump up Nationalism and undeserved American pride in its military.  For me, it’s possible I’d have to go as far back as Luc Besson’s action-drama “The Professional”  (1994; also known under the title “Leon”) to find a pure action film I unabashedly loved.

“John Wick” is an action film that plays into our current sensibilities by creating a world and a mythology, at least a little bit, while at the same time having the retro feel of a simple action movie about a Tough Guy out for revenge.  The visual style of the film calls to mind the Punisher Max series of comic books, pulling off visuals that “Punisher: War Zone” had been going for but failed at delivering. In fact, the world of the film, in which there is a underground secret society of assassins who use gold coins as currency and congregate at a safe ground hotel, in addition to using a special service for dead body disposal, feels like something out of either Punisher Max or a Mark Millar comic.  It’s only a few degrees removed from the real world, but it’s enough to make the film have an intriguing setting that one hopes may be explored in potential sequels.

That quasi-comic book sensibility aside, we have a story that is really old school in its simplicity. John Wick (Keanu Reeves, in a role designed to play to his strengths) is a former assassin who once worked with the Russian mob before retiring to start a life with the woman he loved. After 4 years out of the game, his wife dies of a terminal illness. While grieving, he receives a delivery.  It’s cute puppy. The puppy was a gift arranged by his late wife prior to her passing. She wanted him to have a companion to help him with his grief, hoping it would help him and give him a reason to keep going on.  A very sweet gesture, and a touching moment for a movie such as this.

Later, Wick is driving around in his vintage Mustang with his new puppy when he stops at a gas station.  Filling up next to him are some Russian mobsters, including Iosef (Alfie Allen), the brat son of the head Russian mobster, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).  Iosef likes the car and wants to buy it, but Wick tells him it’s not for sale. Iosef calls John a “bitch” in Russian, and Wick replies in Russian and drives off.  Later that night, Iosef and two cronies break into Wick’s home, kill his dog, and steal his car.  The dog, being the last present from Wick’s wife, naturally hits Wick hard.  Not only was the dog cute and something to help Wick through the grief, but the dog dying is almost like losing his wife twice.  This is a very fresh take on the revenge tale.  We’ve seen action heroes avenge the death of the woman they love, but this adds an extra layer to that.  It’s not much deeper, and it’s so simple I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before (the closest thing to this is the Jack Ketchum novel “Red”, in which three punk teens kill an old man’s dog, and he decided to take revenge after they refuse to apologize).  Aside from the audiences’ reaction to a cute dog being killed, the idea of the last, loving gift from the deceased love of your life being torn from you a mere two days after that love has died, well, people have gone insane from less.

So, naturally, Wick comes out of retirement and wants to kick some Russian ass (I so miss Russians being the bad guys in movies). As Viggo mobilizes to protect his son, hiring assassins played by Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palacki to take out Wick, Wick engages in a one-man war on the Russian mob, which consists of swift shoot-outs, and non-fancy close-quarters combat with guns, knives, fists, and feet. No fancy “I know Kung Fu” shit here.  This is balls-to-the-wall action, shot and edited effectively, using well-placed CGI augmenting make-up effects, and a great score by Tyler Bates and others (and a Marilyn Manson song here or there) to amp up the action.

The film is directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Both have largely had careers as stuntmen and fight choreographers (the former was the stunt double for Keanu on many previous films of his) and this is their first film as directors.  They are surprising good, at the film keeps a good, frenetic pace once the action begins, and the film is really pretty to look at (the color scheme is often quite remarkable). Little things, like how English subtitles appear on screen when Russian dialogue is spoken add little touches of interesting visual playfulness that make this whole endeavor all the more enjoyable.  The action scenes move fast, but you are always aware of the spacial relations of where everyone is, and you never lose track of who is fighting or shooting whom.  So often these action films cut so fast from so many angles that just wind up confused and bored and end up waiting patiently for the scene to end so you can figure out where everyone ended up and who is alive and dead.  Here, we are never confused, and the film never moves faster than the audience’s ability of comprehension.  This may not seem like a hard thing to do, but if it weren’t so many action films wouldn’t screw this up.

“John Wick” may not reinvent the wheel.  It doesn’t do much of anything new.  However, what it does do, it does REALLY WELL.  I had a blast watching it, and I actually WANT a sequel, rather than feel resigned that there will inevitably be one.  This is the best straight-ahead action film in years. A-

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