Film Review: ‘John Wick’

"John Wick" Film Review

Back in action-hero mode, Keanu Reeves joins forces with his 'Matrix' stunt double to deliver a slick and satisfying revenge thriller.

There are no good guys in “John Wick,” but there are some great actors working alongside Keanu Reeves in his darkest and most tormented role yet: a stunningly lethal contract killer who goes on a rampage after a Russian thug murders his dog. Yes, his dog. If you can stomach the setup, then the rest is pure revenge-movie gold, as Reeves reminds what a compelling action star he can be, while the guy who served as his stunt double in “The Matrix” makes a remarkably satisfying directorial debut, delivering a clean, efficient and incredibly assured thriller with serious breakout potential, thanks in part to Summit’s simultaneous Imax release.

That unsung hero is Chad Stahelski, the stunt guru who stepped into Brandon Lee’s shoes on “The Crow” and spent the next two decades absorbing all the behind-the-scenes filming lessons that make “John Wick” such a technically impeccable actioner. (Stahelski and longtime stunt collaborator David Leitch approached the project as a team, but only Stahelski ultimately received directing credit from the DGA, while Leitch is credited as a producer.) Whereas the tendency among many other helmers is to jostle the camera and cut frenetically in the misguided belief that visual confusion generates excitement, the duo understand what a thrill well-choreographed action can be when we’re actually able to make out what’s happening.

And that’s why Reeves serves as just the right star to play Wick, a short-fuse antihero whose ridiculous moniker (borrowed from screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s grandfather) clumsily conveys his explosive temper. There’s nothing clumsy about the actor who plays Wick, however, as Reeves’ lithe physicality enables extended sequences in which he moves athletically through an environment full of adversaries, shooting, stabbing or otherwise immobilizing them one at a time.

Since brutally efficient action sequences are in such short supply these days, the fact that “John Wick” delivers no fewer than half a dozen — home invasion, hotel room, Red Circle club, church parking lot, Brooklyn safehouse, grand finale — more than excuses Kolstad’s lame-brained script. Basically, the idea is to mislead audiences into believing that Reeves’ character is a mild-mannered family man, compressing the preceding few months of personal tragedy into a montage in which Wick visits his wife (Bridget Moynahan) in hospital, attends her rain-drenched funeral (where former colleague Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, makes an ominous appearance), and weeps upon receiving her final gift: a pre-trained puppy named Daisy.

This intro doesn’t exactly position Wick as someone Russian mobsters would refer to as “the Boogey Man,” but of course, everyone in the theater already knows what’s coming. Far from fooling anyone, this mopey opening merely provides an awkward bit of melodrama to get past before the carnage can commence — which it does soon enough, when “Game of Thrones” goon Alfie Allen, playing the bratty son of a Russian crime boss, improbably shows up at a rural gas station and offers to buy Wick’s prized 1969 Boss Mustang. When Wick declines, the punk and his friends decide to break into his house and help themselves, beating Wick with baseball bats, smashing his things, snapping the poor dog’s neck and taking the Mustang on their way out.

While killing a dog hardly seems enough to justify the meticulously orchestrated mayhem that follows, we should at least be grateful the pic doesn’t impose some greater emotional trauma upfront (like forcing us to witness his wife’s rape or murder, a la “Death Wish”). The script waits until this moment, when Iosef takes the stolen Mustang to the shop to have its plates changed, before revealing Wick’s reputation. The fence (a tough-looking John Leguizamo) nervously refuses to help, notifying Iosef’s relatively civilized mobster dad, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, looking suave and collected in the face of certain death), that his son has awakened a monster.

One almost feels sorry for Stahelski, who’s been given such a soggy pulp screenplay to work with, and yet it’s during these B-movie scenes that we start to feel what he can bring to the table. In terms of material, “John Wick” is nothing special, but there’s a suave elegance to the way Stahelski and Leitch approach this thoroughly generic project, seizing the opportunity to deliver some pretty spectacular setpieces along the way.

The result, photographed in sleek, steady-hand widescreen by Vilmos Zsigmond protege Jonathan Sela, looks more like recent Nicolas Winding Refn pics than relatively sloppy studio fare (right down to its cool, neon-lit shootouts), relying on a mix of heavy metal and electronic music from the likes of Marilyn Manson, Tyler Bates and Kaleida to generate propulsive forward energy. Needless to say, Iosef and his thugs picked the wrong guy to mess with. But their mistake wasn’t stealing Wick’s car and killing his dog. Their mistake was not killing Wick when they had the chance.

As written, everyone seen onscreen is bad to some degree — from the lethal minx (Adrianne Palicki) who accepts a $4 million contract to kill Wick to the corrupt Catholic priest (Munro M. Bonnell) who protects the vault where Viggo stores his valuables — which means every bullet fired potentially stands to make this corrupt underworld a better place. Evidently, evil is relative, and some of these killers are more supportive of Wick than others, including Dafoe’s Marcus, a fellow sharpshooter who intervenes whenever Wick finds himself in a particularly tight spot, and Ian McShane, who plays the manager of the film’s most inspired location: a high-end hotel for assassins where the house rules demand that no killing be done on premises.

Clearly, “John Wick” isn’t set in the real world, but rather in the sort of heightened parallel dimension that gamers use for target practice, where they must constantly be on their guard as goons pop up from behind objects and around corners. That’s effectively how we experience the better part of the movie, tagging along as Wick hunts down Iosef and brings down Viggo’s entire criminal organization in the process. With long greasy hair and wispy facial hair, Reeves isn’t nearly as tough or intimidating as your typical revenge-movie antihero, but his star persona helps to make the film more fun — or at least a lot less bleak — than downbeat classics as “Rolling Thunder” and “Get Carter.” All that violence won’t bring Daisy back, but it helps to clear enough space in Wick’s cold-blooded heart for another dog. Maybe he’s not so bad after all.

Film Review: 'John Wick'

Reviewed at Metropolitan Filmexport, Paris, Oct. 14, 2014. (In Fantastic Fest.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A Summit Entertainment release presented with Thunder Road Pictures, in association with 87Eleven Prods., Defynite Films. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria. Executive producers, Peter Lawson, Mike Upton, Kevin Frakes, Raj Singh, Sam X. Eyde, Tara Moross, Darren Blumenthal, Joseph Vincenti, Erica Lee.

Crew

Directed by Chad Stahelski. Screenplay, Derek Kolstad. Camera (color, widescreen), Jonathan Sela; editor, Elisabeth Ronalds; music, Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard; music supervisor, John Houlihan; production designer, Dan Leigh; art director, CJ Simpson; set decorator, Susan Bode Tyson; costume designer, Luca Mosca; sound (Dolby Digital), Danny Michael; supervising sound editor, Mark Stoeckinger; re-recording mixers, Jim Bolt, Martyn Zub; visual effects supervisor, Jake Braver; visual effects, Spin VFX; fight coordinator, Jonathan Eusebio; assistant director, John R. Saunders; stunt coordinator/second unit director, Darrin Prescott; casting, Suzanne Smith Crowley, Jessica Kelly.

With

Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Munro M. Bonnell, Clarke Peters. (English, Russian dialogue)

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  1. bradfeet74 says:

    WOW! JOHN WICK 2 – KICK ASS! Stylish, thrilling, great casting, and hardcore action and a hero that you empathise with. John Wick 2 serves as a satisfying return of Keanu Reeves ,and received the most enthusiastic audience response ’till the end of the film .
    I’m just glad Keanu Reeves has a winner. He is one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys. Despite a long series of cutting personal tragedies, none of his own doing, he has quietly toiled on, remaining to this day a humble, caring, most generous soul. May his future be bright.

  2. Nick says:

    This is a truly awful movie. How anyone can rate it is beyond me. Terrible plot, terrible acting, terrible accents and basic 90s-like action sequences. I was prepared for some dumbed down action, but this was lazy stuff. Busting into a nightclub and killing 30 brainless Russian gangsters was a bit much. Then there were the other 50 lemmings throughout the rest of the movie. It was Commando esque without the humour.
    All characters in the movie had no semblance of character. Each scene had some awful background ‘edgy action’ music to compliment the dialogue, walking, fighting and mourning.

    I love Keanu Reeves, but this was utterly dull. Don’t watch it! The the Equalizer was good fun and pretty much exactly what this movie was trying to do. The other option is Taken, though not the other two!

    You’ll probably enjoy this if you’re 15.

  3. Everyone loves to pick up on the whole “they killed his dog” plot as the entire motivation for the character. but there’s more there if you’re willing to see it. John himself reveals that the “parting gift” from his late wife represented more than just a damn-cute animal. It represented an aid to his grief and pain form the loss. Watch the scene in which Wick reads his wife’s note and see how much pain that man is in. In that moment, Keanu sells the set up with one acting performance. He’s lost without her. Anyone who has lost someone, whether it be due to death or just a terrible break-up knows the kind of pain Keanu is showing in that moment. It’s not about the dog. It’s about the right to grieve. That’s what was taken away from him, and that’s what he went out for revenge for. I think many people are missing the whole point of the dog, what it represents and how the film does more with so little – more so than almost any of theses types of action genre films. Just a filmmaker and writer’s 5 cents.

  4. Rohit Sharma says:

    John Wick is far better than revenge films of similar ilk have conditioned us to expect. A vivid unique world, great casting, hardcore action and a hero that you empathise with and root for that isn’t impervious to harm. A must watch for action movie lovers. For my detailed review, please visit……..http://rohitmoviereview.blogspot.in/

  5. clay says:

    I love my dog to death, as much as any other member of my family. So while not an incredibly believable premise of a movie, I can understand why he did what he did.

    Also, cannot wait to see this! So far all the reviews have been very positive!

  6. Jacob says:

    Great movie…Based on what I have seen and read to date, it seems as if Chad Stahelski has a natural eye and vision for this genre. Obviously that combined with his many years in the business as a stunt guy allow for him to translate that vision…

    My biggest problem with movies like the Expendables 3 and others like it, is that they have so much potential yet fail miserably when it comes to the action sequences…The blood and guts if you will. Its maddening…The art-form is evolving and the audience demands more these days.

    My biggest problem with the crap out there today is captured by the quote from the article below:

    “Whereas the tendency among many other helmers is to jostle the camera and cut frenetically in the misguided belief that visual confusion generates excitement, the duo understand what a thrill well-choreographed action can be when we’re actually able to make out what’s happening.”

    Honestly, myself and my friends who went and saw Expendables 3 had absolutely no freaking clue what was going on half the time in those action sequences – Who was doing what, what character was where…It was messy and all over the place…I mean…That script was no better than the John Wick script which at best is mediocre…The difference is the vision and style that brought it to life. More action films and their producers should take a lesson from John Wick. You don’t need a great script – Package the right above and below the line talent, try to do something different, and give the movie audience who has now been exposed to the Matrix, Christopher Nolan movies and Xbox better action films!.

  7. Steve UK says:

    I dunno you start the review by saying Reeves is ‘a stunningly lethal contract killer’ and end the review with the words ‘Reeves isn’t nearly as tough or intimidating as your typical revenge-movie antihero’. I’d love to see Reeves play a brutal cold blooded killer but your review isn’t clear on that point.

  8. aunt T says:

    Another beloved hero/actor – in a poster- pointing a gun… no matter how good the film,
    will we ever learn?

  9. johnnyfrommalibu says:

    Namecheck “Rolling Thunder”? Righteous!

  10. ActionGirl says:

    Why do men have no emotional depth? Every reviewer keeps focusing on the fact that he’s gone after these men because of the dog. It’s not specifically about the dog. Although considering the fact that the guys wife has just passed and this is the first thing he’s cared about since her death, you may consider the violence behind the dog’s death enough of a reason to be pissed. But it’s about the fact that his wife, who went through a long illness and knew she was going to be leaving him alone, thought of leaving him something else he could love. Which is the reason he’s so pissed that they killed his dog.

    Yes, I guess to a man it’s schlocky. But if you want to bring in more than than the knuckle dragging man off the street into the theater to watch the very sexy Keanu Reeves beat down a bunch of guys who took away the last thing his wife left to him, maybe make it a date movie where a guy could get lucky afterwards. You make this film a little sappy along with a lot of high testasterone action and fighting to bring in the female element as well.

    • Nanny Mo says:

      I think it’s more Keanu. His really dead style of acting either really works or fails big time. He’s one that can be hit or miss, but when he’s on, he’s good.

      • I’m not sure why stating what is made obvious by the trailer that it means the reviewer lacks emotional depth or that ALL men lack it. I’m a guy, and I’m one hell of a sappy bastard. I cry at the drop of a hat. The fact is this movie is just an excuse for a bunch of action sequences. There’s no depth to it. It’s yet another in a long line of pulpy action movies that treat the females as either disposable or as lethal sex objects.

        Also you’re making generalizations based on gender. Gender isn’t just about straight male and straight female. There’s a spectrum, and some people aren’t into sex so it’s probably best if you tried not to make assumptions about entire groups of people based on harmful stereotypes.

      • ActionGirl says:

        I can agree with that.

  11. JoshuaF says:

    Smart review. Sold me on it. Very good point about action films that rely on chaotic and frenetic camera movement in place of well done choreography. It just isn’t as satisfying when you can’t track the action.

  12. eclectic gal says:

    Thanks for the review. Definitely want to see this. Love choreographed action sequences without jerky cuts. And revenge for the murder of a beloved innocent dog — totally justified!

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