By: Wil Loper, Contributor
Keanu Reeves plays the titular role as a man whose wife dies a too early death due to cancer and leaves him a puppy to help him keep going. We see this all in a dialogue-free montage that is supposed to be very emotional, but I found it to be a little too calculating in making sure the audience’s sympathies were correctly aligned before the butt kicking begins. When some Russian thugs break into Wick’s house to steal his car and kill his puppy in the process, Wick’s path to tracking them down and making them pay is set.
The movie straddles the line between taking itself very seriously and having fun with the action genre, and more often lands on the side of seriousness. At times I wished the movie took itself less seriously. After reading the plot synopsis and thinking that the movie was all about Keanu going on a warpath over a puppy, I thought the movie could be a lot of fun on the absurdity of that premise alone, no wife backstory to speak of.
But a puppy from his deceased wife it is, and the Russian punk who killed it is Iosef (Alfie Allen), who just happens to be the son of the Russian kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). A refreshing, if not reaching, coincidence is that Viggo and John Wick have history. Wick used to work for Viggo before getting out of the business to marry his wife and settle down. Wick’s nickname in the hitman business is “The Boogeyman” – as Viggo elaborates, however, Wick isn’t actually the Boogeyman, he’s the man you send to kill the Boogeyman. Viggo knows Wick will not stop before he has killed Iosef, but to protect his son, sends every henchman on deck to try and kill Wick first, though he knows it’s most likely a hopeless endeavor.
The action scenes are the highlight in this movie. To say the action is the best part of an action movie seems strange, it should seem obvious, but there has been a growing prevalence of shaky cam and quick editing in action movies that completely prevent the audience from being able to tell just what the hell is going on. All too often, I see an action movie and keep asking, who just shot who? I see a bunch of fists flying into bodies and hear thumping sound effects, but I can’t tell if it’s the good guy winning or the stunt double. Mercifully, the directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, themselves stunt coordinators, let the camera sit and just shoot the unfolding action. We can actually see the choreographed fights play out! And when the choreography is clever and Wick pulls off a sweet move like turning some puppy food into a grenade, the movie is that much more enjoyable. Alright, alright, he doesn’t actually turn kibble into an explosive.
Equally enjoyable is the world-building within John Wick. There is a hotel that Wick checks into that is exclusively for hitmen/assassins and has its own code that no business be performed on the property. It even comes complete with an in-house doctor for those pesky gunshot and stab wounds that you just can’t go to the hospital for since you live below the law. In this hotel, I can only imagine that room service comes with silencers and bullets in addition to eggs and pancakes in the morning. The movie also answers that mystery of who really cleans up all the dead bodies that pile up in action movies. For all I know, they evaporate after several hours like a spilled carafe of water. Not so in this movie.
The fun that John Wick has with the action genre is all the more frustrating by the clichés that the movie succumbs to. The most egregious of them all occurs with Viggo spending the majority of the movie explaining that John Wick is probably the most dangerous man in the world, capable of killing an unlimited amount of people. But when he has the chance to kill Wick, he exits the room and leaves only two henchmen to finish the job. Two! This is after we have see Wick dispatch well over two-dozen men and the main baddie is fully aware of this. If the scene had thrown a self-referential line in there making fun of the fact, I may have forgiven the scene. It reminds me of the scene from 1997’s Austin Powers in which Dr. Evil’s son pleads with his dad to shoot Powers in the head themselves and make sure he’s dead, but Dr. Evil refuses. That scene should be a call to action for screenwriters everywhere to not leave such a lazy scene on the page, and subsequently for it to show up on the screen.
Additionally, Iosef could have been replaced in post with giant CG letters reading “CLICHÉ,” as he plays the Russian mob boss’s son who does whatever he wants with little regard to the consequences of his actions. A more realistic character might have behaved with more care, especially after being told repeatedly that he has awakened the beast that is John Wick.
Disappointing cliché fallbacks notwithstanding, John Wick is still a fun action romp that’s easily recommendable. Moviegoers looking for a straightforward beat-em-up will have the time of their lives, but those looking for something a little deeper will still enjoy the movie as well. If you’ve heard this is Keanu’s best action movie since The Lake House, you’ve heard right. I look forward to a possible new franchise for Keanu, no Sandra Bullock or Morpheus required. I give it 3.5 Russian henchmen out of 5.