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Review: John Wick (2014)

John Wick (2014)

Directed by: David Leitch and Chad Stahelski

Premise: A hit man (Keanu Reeves) comes out of retirement to take revenge on the gangsters who wronged him.

What Works: John Wick is a highly stylized action picture and the movie works as an A-to-Z shoot-‘em-up revenge tale. The story may not have much in it that is notable but the movie is distinguished by its execution. The filmmakers smartly take their time in the opening; rather than beginning on action and violence, John Wick starts by establishing its title character as a widower. This is done through a very elegant montage sequence that sets up everything we need to know about the character and does something very important. John Wick is established as a vulnerable character despite his apparent invincibility in the later action scenes. The image of Keanu Reeves crying over his dead wife while holding a puppy may not be subtle but it does the job of putting the audience on the character’s side for the rest of the movie. This picture also exceeds the parameters of the vengeful assassin genre through its style. John Wick is excellently shot and edited. This film was co-directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, whose careers in motion pictures have mostly been as stunt coordinators on major Hollywood action films like 300 and The Matrix trilogy. That particular expertise is apparent in John Wick. The action sequences are terrifically choreographed and although the filmmakers don’t employ the slow motion cinematography of 300 the shootouts nevertheless have the same ballet-of-violence quality. But despite the fast movements and rapid cutting, the action is always clear and the continuity is consistent. John Wick has a lot of energy to it and that kinetic quality is partly to do with the film’s visual style but it is also a result of the music. The soundtrack of John Wick features a score by Tyler Bates, who has become one of the go-to composers for the action genre, and his music is paired with rock songs that complement the score and the style of the movie. 

What Doesn’t: John Wick is frequently absurd but movies like this almost always are; that’s part of the joy of an action picture. But the characters of John Wick aren’t much more than stock types. This is yet another shoot-‘em-up movie pitting a mild mannered assassin against Russian and/or Eastern European gangsters and the clichés are wearing thin. The title character of John Wick is out for revenge, intending to kill the son of a mob boss. That leads the viewer to expect that when Wick and his target come to their final confrontation it will be staged in a dramatic fashion but the moment passes as just another bullet to the head. After reaching its logical conclusion, John Wick keeps going for another twenty minutes with additional action sequences that have no dramatic reason to exist. But the flaw of John Wick that is most nagging is the vacuity of it. The film opens with the title character losing his wife to natural causes; she leaves him a puppy with the hope that he will take care of himself by caring for this dog. When Wick’s house is robbed, the criminals kill the dog and that sets the character on a rampage of revenge in which dozens—perhaps hundreds—of people are killed. That all of this violence is, ultimately, about a dog that the hit man possessed for two days isn’t quite enough to justify the body count of this movie. Similar films like The Equalizer and Taken presented their violence in a context where something concrete was at stake; the heroes were forced into a life and death struggle and killing the bad guys ultimately won peace for themselves and their friends and family. When John Wick reaches its conclusion very little has been won, lost, or affirmed and so the movie is dogged by its emptiness.

Bottom Line: John Wick is a satisfying action shoot-‘em-up. The story is pretty thin but the film is high on style and full of energy, and it makes for consistently engaging viewing.

Episode: #517 (November 9, 2014)