The set up is standard revenge action stuff. A dangerous guy has put aside his history of violence, but then a bad thing is done to something he loves. Violence ensues. In the case of John Wick, the dangerous guy is John Wick (duh), a retired contract killer. His 1969 Ford Mustang is stolen and, to make matters worse, his dog is killed by the stupid son of a mob boss. This makes John Wick very mad. Not since 2005’s martial arts picture The Protector sent Tony Jaa looking for his stolen elephant has so much violence followed a wrong done to a beloved pet. In Wick’s defense, the dog is a great movie dog, perfectly behaved out of the box and cute as all get out. I wanted to wipe off the fake blood and take it home myself. But Wick’s especially ticked off because the dog was the final present from his recently deceased wife. And since he can’t very well get revenge on the disease that took her, the punks that clubbed his dog will be the next best thing.
The entire film is devoted to Wick’s attempts to get to the mob boss son, killing his way through set pieces in which the bad guys line up to stop him and end up shooting galleries. Sometimes one of the anonymous muscled guys holds his own for a moment and we get some tight, bruising hand-to-hand gun fu combat. There’s really not much to the plot beyond these nicely done spurts of violence involving guns, knives, cars, and the occasional random object deployed for clever effect. There’s no frills, no fat, just lean, efficient, bloody action filmmaking that takes time to linger on the pain and confusion of the violence. Wick stops to get patched up after one particularly close scrape, asking the doctor doing the stitching how active he can be with such an injury. The doc casually hands him some pills and warns him that he’ll tear if he overdoes it. But, hoo boy, is he about to overdo it. He’s only halfway through the runtime!
It’s a pretty dumb action movie, but awfully smart about its dumbness. It starts with a solid center, casting the always-reliable, often unfairly underrated, action movie centerpiece Keanu Reeves as Wick. It’s not entirely coincidence he’s ended up in so many memorable actioners over the last twenty plus years, from Point Break and Speed to The Matrix and Constantine. He specializes in characters who keep their cool, are stoic, sardonic, professional, and seemingly unflappable, making it all the more impactful when he’s flapped, as he often is at some point. Here stuntman Chad Stahelski, making his directorial debut, is guiding the project. He works Reeves’ spacey distance for dramatic effect, making us feel the hyper-confident man beneath his mournful, detached, and determined present state. It could easily be a role filled by Liam Neeson (if he wasn’t making A Walk Among the Tombstones at the time) or Denzel Washington (ditto The Equalizer), but Reeves make it something uniquely his own. He has an eerie calm and smooth remove bubbling over with pain as he grits his teeth and goes back to work.
As Reeves races through the film’s action paces – a gunfight in a nightclub here, an attack on his glass-filled home (the better to shatter during a fight) there – he encounters an ensemble of familiar faces in bit parts. They’re the kind of small flavoring performers who turn up a few times throughout and only need to show their faces to suggest richer inner lives and backstories than the movie has time or need for. There’s the mob boss (Michael Nyqvist) and his son (Alfie Allen), their lawyer (Dean Winters), their hitmen (Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki), and other assorted helps and hindrances (Ian McShane, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo). They add distinctive spices to their scenes, which are propelled along by Reeves and his sense of mission, which Stahelski smartly foregrounds every step of the way.
I liked the film’s straight-faced goofy B-movie conception of New York-based contract killers as a chummy clubhouse society with codes of conduct, secret doorways, and where everybody knows each other’s name. They even use the same shady industrial waste company to quietly clean up the bodies. That’s a dryly funny detail. So is the hotel that seems to cater exclusively to their kind. They all know what's coming. Before the action kicks in, Nyqvist asks Leguizamo whom his son has wronged. At the sound of the words “John Wick,” his face falls as he quietly prepares for the shoot-‘em-up he can see forming before his very eyes. Stahelski and crew deliver on that promise, Derek Kolstad’s uncomplicatedly effectual screenplay providing a variety of contexts for proof of John Wick’s deadly competence. It’s a modest, effective, action flick that hits the right buttons. Its style is simple digital photography, slick but unadorned, catching every well-choreographed kick and shot. Its every action hits with impact. It knows what it wants to do and does what it does well.