John Wick Will Blow Your Face Off With Its AwesomenessPosted: October 26, 2014
It’s been almost a year since I got my first pet, an older cat named Sam. I’ve never had a great relationship with or passion for animals, and only became comfortable with them at all through years of interacting with my extended family’s pets. But after having my cat for over 9 months, I can really appreciate firsthand how a pet can work their way into your heart whether you’re expecting it or not. So when I watch a movie where thugs needlessly kill a man’s cute puppy and and then spend the whole story dismissing it as “just a dog”, I couldn’t help but be wrapped up in the story that followed. Of course having a ton of well-executed ultraviolence mixed in doesn’t hurt either… but damn that puppy was cute.
This year has had a resurgence of throwback action films, the sort of films that represent the sort of concise, hard-hitting shoot-em-ups that dominated the summer landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s, in one way or another. And yet, none of them have felt exactly the same; we have all these films that are built around a love of red-blooded action but that each have their own voice and style. John Wick is yet another of these action flicks, one which combines precisely choreographed shootouts and stylized worldbuilding with a broad but fully effective character arc. And while those shootouts are incredibly impactful, it’s the little narrative choices made around them that really help the film stick the landing, and elevate it above the Liam-Neeson-style action movies that it resembles on paper.
The choice that the creative team (directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and writer Derek Kolstad) makes here- of the bad guys killing Wick’s dog rather than his wife- seems like a simple one but has a huge impact on the film’s themes and character. The film is really efficient in establishing Wick’s loneliness and grief as a result of his wife’s recent death (from an illness), through quick cuts and carefully composed shots. So when the puppy Daisy is introduced we can quickly see the change in Wick’s routine and how this dog can and is helping Wick deal with his grief. After the dog is killed, and Wick sets off on his quest, it doesn’t even necessarily feel like a revenge thing. It’s not that Wick wants to avenge his dog’s death- though he did really like that dog- it’s that he’s angry that this life he had left behind had come back and snatched away the remaining little bit of peace and hope he had in the new life he made for himself. It’s certainly still a personal anger, but it’s founded more in Wick having all of the hopeful, innocent things in his life being taken away from him until all that’s left is his impressively violent past… something that Wick still fights within himself even after he heads into New York to hunt down his man.
And the New York of this film is actually pretty stunning. On the one hand, Stahelski and Leitch really take advantage of having shot in New York for real, and it really feels like this is New York. Even when they’re shooting in less-recognizable locales, I could certainly sense all of this being an extension of the city that I currently live in. Furthermore it’s gorgeously shot, and it really makes everything in the city come alive. But on the other hand, this movie is also depicting a very stylized criminal underworld in New York, one where a hotel specifically exists for assassins, and where criminals have their own specialized currency for their business deals. The filmmakers treat all of this with just the right amount of humor, allowing us to recognize the absurdity of it without turning it into something completely cartoonish. The fact that they can juggle the tangible reality of New York with the stylish ridiculousness of this underworld and make it all feel like one unified world is incredibly impressive, especially for first-time filmmakers.
This also speaks to another major ingredient of John Wick’s success: its matter-of-fact-ness. One of the reasons the worldbuilding works is that the film never really stops to explain itself: only the most basic of exposition is given, whatever is necessary to understanding the stakes of the plot. Kolstad’s script never seems too proud of how cool the world is, and just lets everything progress as if it’s natural, which allows the stylized elements to bleed into the reality around it. This also extends to the action scenes. Wick and his various opponents are brutal killers, but rather than linger on how brutal the violence is, the film keeps almost everything at a fast pace, never really stopping to let us mull over the deaths after the fact. But this actually emphasizes how violent everything is, rather than undermining it. To see Wick shoot someone in the head multiple times, then immediately turn around and plug somebody else, illustrates just how vicious and cold-blooded he is. This even carries back to the death of his dog, which rather than being some over-the-top moment of the bad guy willfully shooting the dog with a huge pistol, is just a callous moment of a henchman kicking the little puppy to keep it quiet. Rather than soften the blow, it actually makes it more upsetting and tragic as it wasn’t a willful act of psychotic glee; it was just an unthinking moment of cruelty from someone who didn’t give a shit.
On top of the impressive action, the savvy worldbuilding, and the raw emotional stakes, John Wick also has an hilariously over-qualified cast. When a film features (deep breath) Michael Nyquist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Clark Peters, John Leguizamo and Dean Winters, many of them playing borderline-bit parts, you’re going to get a film with a lot of personality. Nyquist in particular brings a lot of personality to what could have been a very bland villain role. Near the end when Wick is coming for him, he’s drinking and laughing in this charmingly nihilist fashion, like he knows he’s fucked and is just enjoying the show. Besides that, Palicki is an unrestrained badass through the whole movie, McShane plays his character like a retired James Bond, and Leguizamo in his one scene nails the moment of reaction that sets up who John Wick really is. And then there’s Reeves himself, who mostly carries himself like a very guarded man that internalizes his emotions, but in the few scenes where he lets those emotions out, Reeves becomes an open wound. Unsurprisingly Reeves also carries himself really well with the action scenes, bringing the right sort of precise physicality to bear to allow us to believe in the legend of John Wick.
As much as I love many of the geek-friendly tentpoles that now dominate the action landscape these days, it can sometimes be disappointing that old-school gunplay movies are almost becoming a niche market. But while many of these kinds of movies now fall under Liam Neeson’s purview, and many more become cheap UFC/WWE throwaways, John Wick stands out as the sort of movie we’re really missing. Not just as a ball-out piece of action filmmaking (though it very much is that) but as an effectively emotional story, and a sly bit of genre worldbuilding. I’m all over whatever these guys do next, and you should be too. In the meantime, I’m finally going to check out Man of Tai Chi… I’ve heard good things.