John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014)

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There are no ad campaigns out there against animal cruelty, that would do better than John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s pulpy noir action film about a retired assassin, who’d let hell break loose on a Russian mob, just because the boss’ son killed his dog and stole his 1969 Mustang. But it’s primarily because they killed his dog – you know, because a car is just a car, even if it’s a Mustang.

Keanu Reeves’ last memorable screen role since The Matrix was in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly back in 2006. After that, he played the villain in the underwhelming Man of Tai Chi and a half-blood samurai in the semi-enjoyable 47 Ronin. Here, he’s Jonathan Wick, the titular assassin who’d go out of his retirement to hunt down those who wronged him. It’s arguably the best action film of 2014 (arguably, since there’s Edge of Tomorrow and The Raid 2 – the latter, I haven’t seen yet), and definitely one of the best of the decade. While it’s no better than Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head and Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand and more recent fares like Sicario and Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a fairly excellent action movie – way better than any movie in the Fast & Furious and Taken movie series.

John Wick had just recently lost his wife, who, out of sheer love for him, gave him a cuddly puppy as her final gift. John was still in deep mourning when he got the pup and so he spent time with her (the puppy), took her wherever he goes – even when he went drifting one time with his vintage Mustang. If you’re wondering if somebody finally made a Punisher movie and got it right, this is that movie. You know, if somebody killed Frank Castle’s dog, he’s definitely gonna go after them. Even if that somebody is the son of Russian mob boss, who happens to be an old associate of him and knows him very well. But in this movie, his name’s not Frank and he wears jet-black suit instead of shirt with a skull.

So, after the dog died and John has dug out his old guns, what happens next should be pretty much predictable by action movie standards. Like in Hitman, he’s just gonna kill them one by one until he finally gets to the boss, right? Well, in this case, it’s far from predictable. And while he actually went killing the bad guys one by one until he gets to the guy who killed his dog, the plot in John Wick is surprisingly well thought out. While he has to deal with the ins and outs of his former world, which is, the underworld, while repeatedly denying that he’s back to his old life of killing (I’m retired, he’d say), Viggo, the mob boss (Michael Nyqvist, excellent as always) placed a bounty on him, making him a target for his fellow assassins. One of them is Ms. Perkins, a cunning female contract killer played by Adrianne Palicki, who kind of reminds me of Archer’s Lana Kane.  Another hit-man in on the bounty is Marcus, an old friend of John and a Deus Ex Machina played by Willem Dafoe, who also provided the film with the much needed gravitas.

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What also adds to its pretty straightforward plot, are the minor characters and those little details (i.e., the gold coins, John keeping the dog’s leash) that help make this imagined (under) world more plausible. There’s the team of “cleaners” who would clean up the dead bodies after a fight, a very accommodating hotel concierge who’s also in the know of the workings of the underground, and then there’s the cop who showed up at John’s door and just backed away after he saw the dead bodies on the floor – because he knows John’s line of work. It also helps that the dialogue is more than serviceable, with some clever moments (i.e., the exchange between John and Viggo) and is convincingly moving when it needs to be. We’ve seen the dog killed early in the movie, so when John said that they took away the last thing that gave him hope, I just can’t help but believe him, feel for him.

One minor complaint I have is the choice of some music used in the film. While the directors showed a lot of restraint in staging the various stylized gunfights and fisticuffs – they were mostly functional while blood and gore rarely draw attention to themselves – some of the songs in the movie don’t. Do they really need to put a song with the word “kill” in the lyrics?

Near the end of movie, there’s a scene where someone is playing a first-person shooter game, which is probably the filmmakers saying that they’re aware of John Wick’s proximity to such games. Also, in the movie, killing an assassin earns you a gold coin, same gold coin to pay the “cleaners”. In most video games you earn coins, points or gems while playing, then spend them on weapons, magic or maybe an extra life. While John Wick may look like a video game for a good chunk of it – a gracefully rendered one, I might add – it doesn’t feel like one. The revenge story is not there just to serve up a series of elaborate shoot ’em ups.

For every dozen mindless action flicks that go by the Michael Bay school of action film-making (i.e., the incomprehensible fast-cut-shaky-cam action sequences, the tiresome explosions) there are a few that swim against the current – John Wick is one of them. Which I think is enough for fans of old-school action films like me, to think that there is still hope. Like the pitbull John took with him at the end of the movie, this movie is our pup.

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