Written by Erin Fraser
John Wick is the most fun I have had at the cinema all year. Impeccably choreographed, perfectly cast, and stylishly executed, it is a rare breed of film that looks and feels nearly perfect. Keanu Reeves (The Matrix trilogy, My Own Private Idaho) stars as the titular John Wick, a former hit man who left behind a life of crime for the love of a good woman.
When the film opens, she has passed away from an unnamed illness and John is seemingly saved by her parting gift from beyond the grave: a beagle puppy named Daisy. In just days after her funeral, intruders beat up John, steal his beloved vintage sports car, and murder the puppy. With nothing left to lose, John returns to the criminal underworld to track down and exact revenge on the miscreant responsible. This sets up the driving force of the film and instigates the bloody action that follows.
Directed by two Hollywood stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, John Wick radiates a confidence rarely felt from first-time directors. The pair have put to use their best assets, their background in stunt work, to choreograph and film some of the best action set pieces I have seen since John Woo’s seminal 1992 crime picture, Hard-Boiled. Bullets and bodies fly in all directions as characters carry out in the inevitable bloodbath that follows a man down the path of vengeance.
The cast is made up of some of the best actors currently working in Hollywood and everyone is ideal for their role. Willem Dafoe (Antichrist, Spider-Man) plays Marcus, a friend of John’s from his criminal days with uncertain allegiances. A character that could have easily come off as cliché with the aphorisms that litter his dialogue, Dafoe sells the role in a way that only he could, giving the character a needed air of eloquence and wisdom.
Ian McShane (Deadwood) plays a hotel proprietor who keeps the balance in the criminal world, and fellow ex-HBO player Lance Reddick (The Wire) is the hotel’s well-mannered concierge. John Leguizamo (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) pops up as the owner of the regular chop shop. The film’s lone female role belongs to Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as the opportunistic Ms. Perkins, an assassin who is after the bounty placed on John’s head. Palicki plays her role with a both a sense of strength and wit, giving off just the right amount of ambiguity required.
Then there’s Alfie Allen (Game Of Thrones) who shines as Iosef Tarasov, the spoiled son of a mob boss who selfishly and foolishly destroys John’s last shred of hope because he wanted a new plaything. Allen has a rare quality among actors, a backpfeifengesicht, German for “a face badly in need of a fist,” and he embodies the childishness required for the role. He’s a character that you love to hate and John Wick requires that the audience get on board with the desire to punish him. Allen sets up to this challenge, but also shows hints of a vulnerability that ultimately grounds his performance.
The film belongs to its star, though. Reeves has been quiet as of late—his few recent Hollywood forays have either been forgotten or flopped—but with last year’s highly underrated Man Of Tai Chi, which he also directed, he is quickly coming back as one of cinema’s best action heroes. The physicality that the role requires is a natural fit for the actor who’s made his biggest mark in special effects driven films like The Matrix trilogy and Speed. Here, Reeves’ uses his patented “affectlessness” to portray a man who has nothing left in his life to care about. He’s going down this dark path because it’s the only thing left he can do, the only thing that still has meaning and could give him meaning once again.
It’s a self-assured performance and Reeves is convincing as the sorrowful Wick. While the promise of Reeves, the nicest guy in Hollywood, beating up a whiny twerp like the kind Alfie Allen excels in playing, is enough to get my attention, John Wick reveals itself as more than just a satisfying revenge flick. The film expertly calls upon a video game aesthetic and structure, of the kind that studios like Rockstar make. The criminal underworld functions much as it would in a video game, down to using gold coins as a base currency and having a 24-hour doctor on staff at the base of operations, the preposterous gangland hotel, for heal-ups.
There is a stock setting aspect to the various locations throughout the film: from the chop shop, to the criminals’ only hotel, a giant multi-level club, and safe houses. All of these places exhibit varying degrees of ludicrousness and artificiality. As John begins to descend further and further into the criminal underworld towards his goal, there’s a palpable sense that he is leveling up with each fight, and the scenes in-between the action set pieces function much the way that cut scenes do in a video game.
Unlike the games that John Wick resembles, though, the film does not objectify or exploit its female characters at all. While the film takes place on the inside of a lurid gangland, there is not a signal prostitute or gun moll. Tellingly, in a scene where Iosef is partying in a hot tub enjoying bottle service, the camera does not linger on the bikini clad women anymore than on the topless men, objectifying neither female nor male bodies. They are merely half undressed because they are partying in a hot tub.
While the film does feature only one female character, unless you count John’s deceased wife, Ms. Perkins is one of the richest and most complicated characters in the film. She belongs to neither the just side of proceedings, as represented by John and those who adhere to the codes of honour established by the criminal culture, nor the corrupt, as represented by Iosef and his father who protects him. She is a rogue agent and her outcome is one of the most remarkable character developments throughout the film.
John Wick might not be the best film of the year, but with only two more months of films and the “serious” awards-fare looming, I feel confident that it is the most entertaining film of the year. It is a film for film-lovers, especially those that love over-the-top action and seeing justice served.
CC cover photo courtesy of indiewire.com.