(SPOILERS) For their directorial debut, ex-stunt guys Chad Stahelski and David Leitch plump for the old reliable “hit man comes out of retirement” plotline, courtesy of screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and throw caution to the wind. The result, John Wick, is one of last year’s geek and critical favourites, a fired up actioner that revels in its genre tropes and captures that elusive lightning in a bottle; a Keanu Reeves movie in which he is perfectly cast.
That said, some of the raves have probably gone slightly overboard. This is effective, silly, and enormous fun in its own hyper-violent way, but Stahelski and Leitch haven’t announced themselves stylistically so much as plastered the screen with ultra-violence and precision choreography. They have a bit of a way to go before they’re masters of their domain, and they most definitely need to stint on their seemingly insatiable appetite for a metalhead soundtrack. This kind of bludgeoning choice serves to undercut the action after a while. It’s notable how much more engaging the nightclub shoot out is, accompanied by Le Castle Vania, compared to the prolonged aural assault of Tyler Bates. Keanu’s killings even take on the form of particularly punchy punctuations to the former, as if they have been edited specifically to the music. Bates’ contributions are just a lot of noise in comparison.
John Wick arrives in a post-Taken landscape of super-effective but bland and po-faced aging super assassins. In addition to Liam Neeson, we’ve had Denzel Washington’s similarly aged but rather dour take on Edward Woodward in The Equalizer. Stahelski and Leitch use worthier predecessors for their template, the likes of Point Blank and Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s also a nod to Shibumi, which a security guard can be seen reading; it concerns a retired assassin who must return to his old ways.
The former is very much in evidence, as both John Wick and Lee Marvin’s Walker inhabit heightened underworld realities. Wick’s has the kind of flourish more generally reserved for science fiction or broad fantasies, with its hotel for hit men, special gold coins and all-important codes of conduct. Imagine Taken really having fun with its innate ludicrousness, and, unlike the last two instalments, directed by a duo who really understand action and framing, and you’re some way to understanding John Wick’s appeal.
The other key factor in this regard is Keanu. Reeves is an actor not to everyone’s tastes, and his limited range has ensured that at times (Dracula) he has been hopelessly miscast, to a degree that has dogged his career and presaged any appraisal of his talents (see, I even did it here). Cast him well, in comedies (Parenthood, Bill and Ted) or indies (A Scanner Darkly, Thumbsucker) and he comes out peachy. He can even do romance (The Lake House) or villainy (The Gift). Cast him badly (Street Kings comes to mind out of more recent roles) and he sticks out like a sore thumb.
His most consistent genre has been action star, where he has experienced more rebirths than probably any other performer. He also appears to have barely aged over the last 25 years of kicking ass. Reeves first hit the jackpot in the peerless Point Break (so peerless it has been foolishly remade, out later this year), in which he translated the goofy charm he showed in as Ted “Theodore” Logan Esq. into undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (“I caught my first tube today… sir”). It’s a signature role, and it’s easy to forget what a funny guy Reeves can be; he’s funny in John Wick, but in a deadpan rather than frivolous way.
Bona fide action stars tend to do a picture a year; Bruce Willis at his height, even Nicolas Cage during his flirtation with the genre. Reeves just disappeared for long stretches. He resurfaced in Speed three years after his tussle on a beach with Patrick Swizzle. Now sporting a buzz cut and great chemistry with Sandra Bullock. Three years is a long time in Hollywood, and suddenly he was announced as a new pretender to an action throne of variably aging stars (Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger), one he had little interest in. That’s evidenced by his ill-fated, unfit flop Chain Reaction, a picture that had “my agent told me to” all over it. His star had fizzled again, only to be reignited, again, when everyone had forgotten about him doing the action thing, in The Matrix.
Since the last of those, a series that exemplified the impassively earnest, impenetrably blank, Keanu as Zen action icon, he spent the next decade largely absent from the genre, before returning in directorial debut Man of Tai Chi. It has turned out to be the first in a trilogy of action outings. Next came the critically mauled, tumultuously produced, box office dodo 47 Ronin. It’s also happens to be a decent movie, and Reeves is at his most intangibly focussed throughout.
After such concentration, John Wick, which has been as embraced every bit as much as Ronin was spurned (but nevertheless hasn’t proved to be a big hit, at cinemas at least; albeit a cheap movie that wasn’t a big hit). Reeves is winningly low key throughout, but he’s fully aware of the absurdity of his character’s milieu. It’s what makes John Wick such a pleasure; Reeves cast well, as he is here, is every bit as much fun as Bruce Willis was, back when he brought a sense of humour in his action roles (so, about 20 years ago).
The introduction to John walks a tightrope of clichés, so Stahleski and Leitch, rather than attempting to play down Derek Kolstad’s self-aware script, up the ante. Retired hit man Wick loses his wife to cancer. She was the one who gave him the strength to forsake his violent ways, to become a different man. She leaves him an adorable puppy in her will (the puppy is so adorable), to give him something to live for. But no sooner John gets used to the adorable little wet-nosed fella (did I say how adorable he is?), than Russian gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen) takes a liking to John’s car. Iosef breaks into John’s house with his fellow hoods, kills his dog, beats him up, and makes off with his automobile. There’s no coming back from that.
John Wick: When Helen died, I lost everything. Until that dog arrived on my doorstep… A final gift from my wife… That moment I received some semblance of hope, an opportunity to grieve unalone. Your son took that from me, your son stole that from me… Your son killed that from me!
It’s a delightfully extreme motivator, one that was understandably the focus of the ads and much of the movie’s word of mouth (perhaps the very act of killing an – yes – adorable pooch put some viewers off from the off). A movie such as this requires polar adversaries, and it helps that Allen plays the instigator of John’s revenging. He has already made an indelible mark being odious and charmless in Game of Thrones (and less a few other things too). So much so, one wonders if there is any way back for Allen, to different and sympathetic roles.
One also wonders how much of the return of Russian mobsters as villains du jour is a coincidence (or simply laziness; it doesn’t matter if the Russians get offended, and there’s little to be worried about from accusations of xenophobia) and how much Hollywood reflecting current American foreign policy. Both John Wick and Robert McCall have battled the ruthless gangsters of late (The November Man is another, Pierce Brosnan never having gotten the chance to bash the Soviets as Bond). One might see McCall, as an ex-extension of government, as more directly linked to any subtext of how awful these former Commies are. John Wick has no axe to grind with their nationality. He used to work for these gangsters, and speaks their language. His only beef is insurmountable, one that would be the same anywhere (cue Korea jokes); they killed his (adorable) dog. I suspect he might have let the car go without such serious reprisals.
The other masterful aspect of the early passages of John Wick is establishing what a mean mofo Wick is. This kind of legend making, in a landscape of origin stories, is a sheer pleasure to behold. Indeed, there’s more than a little of Snake Plissken and Escape From New York (to be rebooted as, yes, a goddam origin story) in John’s descent to the netherworld and the bemused greetings he receives from those he meets (rather than thinking he was dead, everyone asks if he is back). It’s partly the humour with which this is announced, and partly the manner in which, after 30 minutes (almost a third of the movie; another strength is how economically told Wick is), John has been wound up and we’re ready for him to be let loose.
Viggo: I heard you struck my son.
Aurelio: Yes sir, I did.
Viggo: And may I ask why?
Aurelio: Yeah, well, because he stole John Wick’s car, sir, and, uh, killed his dog.
First stop is Aureilo (John Leguizamo). He runs the chop shop where Iosef takes Wick’s car. I’m so used to Leguizamo playing a weasel, it’s quite a shock to see him as a “good” guy. He’s one of a peppering of well-chosen bit players in the movie, all of whom show up, deliver a burst of supporting firepower, and then withdraw to the sidelines. His exchange with Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the gangster who use to employ John, and who happens to be, fatefully, the father of Iosef, is exactly the level at which this movie is pitched; a deft, pitch black sense of humour designed to catch the viewer unawares.
Viggo: John Wick wasn’t exactly the boogeyman, he was the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman... I gave him an impossible task, a job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he burned that day laid the foundation of what we are now… John will come for you… and you will do nothing because you can do nothing, so get the fuck out of my sight.
And, with an actor as great as Nyqvist (the original Mikael Blomkvist, and much more interesting that Daniel Craig’s forgettable iteration) as the main villain, Reeves – if he so wished – barely even has to show up. Nyqvist does the hard graft, and could announce Steven Segal as a threat to be reckoned with if he so wished; and there’s a chance we’d buy it.
Of course, the whole point of a revenge movie such as this is that it’s impossible to change (Unforgiven). The hero needs to return to his violent ways to justify the ticket price and implement a thunderous catharsis. Look no further than a couple of Mel Gibson franchises for the undesirable consequences for a violent hero when he is declawed (Max Rockatansky in Thunderdome, Martin Riggs in every Lethal Weapon after the first one). Perhaps the best one could say of John is that he now kills with a moral compass (although, as we shall see, some of his choice are still somewhat elusive), so maybe he has changed somewhat.
It’s certainly illustrative that, when John replaces the adorable pup at the end, it’s with a wholly less adorable hound, a pit bull dog-eared to be destroyed. This emphasises John’s parting shot to Viggo, who pleads that they are civilized men (“Do I look civilised to you?”); John is force of nature, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the sequels follow a Max-ian through line of reluctant hero helping a cause before being fully rehabilitated in the third instalment.
Viggo: We are cursed, you and I.
John Wick: On that we agree.
Time was, an anti-hero like John would need to die at the end, which might be the reason for the misdirection of John’s apparently fatal injury in the flash-forward opening scene. Post-Gladiator, we’re used to the tragic hero copping it, and John, as Viggo’s speech about his prowess implies, has been a much more marginal hero than may who have died in the name of moral integrity. There are, however, intimations of karmic destiny or pursuit by the Fates in Viggo’s account of why John has been sucked back into the life (“But in the end a lot of us are rewarded for our misdeeds, which is why God took your wife and unleashed you upon me… This life follows you”)
Marcus: There’s no rhyme or reason to this life. Its days like today scattered among the rest.
John Wick: Are you sure?
Viggo’s understanding of the world contrasts directly with that of John’s old associate and possible mentor Marcus (Willem Dafoe; as with absolutely everything the man does, utterly fantastic). Marcus’ actions belie his words, as he is established as a red herring. He greets John at his wife’s funeral, but it’s unclear to what degree he is a friend, associate, or adversary. He takes Viggo’s contract to kill John without hesitation, but is then revealed as John’s guardian angel, swooping in with a sniper’s rifle to dispatch heavies in John’s moments of crisis. With all the talk of John’s dog, the exit of Dafoe, refusing to give John up, through his actions embodying that life does have meaning; is quite affecting (as it should be, the exit of the mentor is a necessary Joseph Campbell 101).
John Wick sets up its store more by business ethics than anything approximating an actual sensibility, however. All important is the assassin’s code, the terms of which are set out when John books in at the Continental Hotel, an establishment tailored to those of his former profession (complete with a 24-hour on call surgeon). Etiquette is everything, so those who don’t observe it are dealt with severely (the amusingly name Perkins, played by Adrienne Palicki, has no truck with the Hotel being an assassination-free zone).
There are some great cameos in and around this section of the movie; Lance Reddick as an impossibly poised and well-mannered concierge; Ian McShane as Winston, the owner of the Continental; Reddick’s The Wire alumni Clarke Peters as a fellow hit man who pays too little attention to Perkins’ skill set. Causing noise in the Continental is a big faux pas, so when John gets a call from Reddick’s Charon, his response is to stress how sorry he is (“My apologies, I was dealing with an uninvited guest”). (This is a bit of a clumsy signifier, Charon being the boatman who ferries the dead to Hades, thus emphasising that John has returned to the figurative grave – this is underlined by Viggo’s final “Be seeing ya, John”, to which John replies, “Yeah, be seeing ya”).
Jimmy: Evening, John.
John Wick: Evening, Jimmy. Noise complaint?
Jimmy: Noise complaint. You, er, working again?
John Wick: No, er, just sorting some stuff out.
Jimmy: I’ll, er, leave you be, then. Good night, John.
John Wick: Good night, Jimmy.
In the world of John Wick, everyone, his dearly departed aside, is part of the underworld. The police turn a blind eye to John’s activities, in a scene of glorious nonchalance. The arrival of David Patrick Kelly (whom I have been seeing a lot more of during my revisit of Twin Peaks) as Charlie the Cleaner, may conjure ‘90s memories of Nikita and Pulp Fiction, but he feels like a natural extension of a world predicated on an extremely organised despatch industry, rather than lazy homage.
John Wick: Why don’t you take the night off?
Francis: Thank you, sir.
The action, cleanly and clearly choreographed, serves to emphasis John’s unstoppable prowess. But, since he gets pretty beaten up in the process, there isn’t quite the sense that this is all a fait accompli. Humorous touches abound, from Viggo’s weary assumption that the first attempt on John’s life would fail (“Of course they’re dead. Put a contract on John Wick”), to John’s encounter with a heavy, with whom he discusses weight loss and obligingly invites to scarper before the shooting begins.
If I was to point to a few gaps in technique, while the decision to film action moves in one take is admirable, the process of avoiding the cut occasionally makes it looks as if the bad guys are giving John ample time to kill them rather than being intent on taking him down en masse (balance that against the incoherence of Oliver Megaton and I’d choose Stahelski and Leitch’s approach every time). And, while it’s necessary for John to get caught in order to have a tête-à-tête with Viggo, the actual circumstances are a tad unlikely (on several occasion a vehicle appears out of nowhere into frame, signifying John may have severe hearing problems).
Viggo: No more guns, John, no more bullets.
One could complain about logical failings until the bounty is paid, but a few unaccountables do stand out. Maybe it’s misplaced chivalry, or simply staunch adherence to the Continental’s rules, but John refraining from killing Perkins is a huge mistake and leads to the death of Marcus. There’s also his strange choice not to shoot Iosef early on, when he has the chance. It’s not as if John doesn’t kill him in cold blood later, so the question is why not before? He wanted to be able to give him a speech, and wouldn’t have had the chance on first engagement? Or he needed to play the game out, knowing that he would eventually have to butt heads with Viggo? Silliest is the showdown with Viggo, where they set down their guns for a fistfight, à la Mel and Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon. It’s cheesy and dissatisfying, a point where a bullet to the head would have been a more fitting and succinct.
John Wick: People keep asking if I’m back, and I haven’t really had an answer. Now yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.
So it looks like John Wick 2 will be with us before very long, and no doubt, if that is similarly embraced (these movies are done on a budget, so like – or really, not at all like – the Transporter series, moderate box office is all that is needed to guarantee a follow-up), there’ll be a John Wick 3. I’m looking forward to it, as long as it retains the bombast and, most importantly, is laden with the infectious wit of the first one. It could lose the metal, however. Keanu won’t stop taking the unfair brickbats any time soon, but it’s worth noting is he’s picked his very few sequels with exceeding care. Wick is the first franchise he’s climbed aboard since The Matrix, and before that there was only Bill and Ted. John Wick 2 will not be Speed 2: Cruise Control.