John Woo meets Point Blank
World building with slick comic-book-style assuredness, brutally hitting us with MMA-style ferocity, and returning us to the golden era of heroic bloodshed gun-fu ballets, John Wick is a near-perfect actioner.One of the biggest sleeper surprises in recent times, this relatively low budget indie flick literally came out of nowhere, and totally blindsided audiences across the globe, making far more money than anybody ever expected it to and winning the critics over with its lean, efficient, no-nonsense editing and pacing, it’s aforementioned worldbuilding, and for returning Keanu Reeves to form, with a bang. Like an impossible, mythical beast, debut directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – working from a 2012 Black List debut screenplay by Derek Kolstad – have fashioned something people never even knew could exist. John Wick is a film which so joyously revels in the milestones of the action genre, all the while becoming a new and defining entry itself.It's a film which pays tribute to all those countless classics that have gone before, and yet manages to refine the melting pot of genre staples into something that feels surprisingly fresh. Fusing comic book style with spaghetti western; hard-boiled revenge noir with the works of the director of Hard Boiled, in the oh-so-tired action genre few things are as deliriously engaging or unabashedly brutal. And boy is it good to see Reeves back, over 15 years after the masterpiece that was the first Matrix film, proving that – even at 50 – he’s still got it. If there’s anything you’re left wanting for at the end of the furious 100 minute runtime, it’s more from Reeves, more from these directors, and more from John Wick.
For as much as John Wick is, essentially, a brutal revenge thriller dressed up with some fantastic action beats, the story is surprisingly effective and probably best kept largely unrevealed. It may be minimalist, but its echoes are resonant, playing out in much the same way as Point Blank / Payback in the way that a seemingly microcosmic event results in a desperately uncontrollable ripple effect which nobody can see coming. Once it unleashes hell, however, there’s no stopping it. And hell, here, goes by the name of John Wick.
Keanu Reeves has made some eclectic choices across his near three decades of work in film, but his action features have provided a series of disparate – but well-received – lynchpins to the genre set apart by an almost equal number of years, from his 1991 classic Point Break to his 1994 hit Speed to his genre-defining The Matrix in 1999. Another four years later we’d get the epic, engaging but frustratingly anticlimactic Matrix sequels, and then a decade of features that similarly received, at best, mixed reviews. He made for a decent Constantine, and the flawed but suitably gritty David Ayer corrupt cop thriller, Street Kings, and recently earned praise from master filmmaker John Woo himself for his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, but his biggest recent outing – the disjointed fantasy/samurai actioner 47 Ronin – is unfortunately, and somewhat unfairly, now known only as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.
“People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But, yeah, I’m thinking, I’m back.”
So it’s not surprisingly that the only way he could make a comeback would be through this kind of personal, independent offering, with no prior expectations and no big studios banging at the door for script changes or more ‘splosions. And nobody demanding that the dreaded PG-13 cap be levelled. Because John Wick doesn’t pander to that, bringing us action with a Dredd-level of unabashed violence. In the midst of it all, is Reeves, utterly committed and utterly convincing, bringing us some touching moments of genuine acting – required of him in order to get us to commit to this particular journey of unrelenting revenge – before showing us the little something different that he’s learned for this movie.
With the directors – who come from a stunt and action choreography background, and worked with Reeves on the Matrix films – intent on the actor performing many of his own stunts, they were also equally intent on fighting using none of the martial arts styles that he was previously trained in; blending new training in Judo, Japanese ju-jitsu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Navy SEAL and SWAT firearms techniques. The result is some of the most impressive gun-and-grappling combat ever captured on film; Reeves tactically taking down dozens of aggressors, whether from across the room or up-close-and-personal.
Whilst overtly paying tribute to Woo’s quintessential action thriller, The Killer, the film doesn’t trade in the same penchant for slo-mo action – and there’s no bullet-time either – instead bringing us the kind of hyper-kinetic bullet ballets that remind us of Woo’s elaborately-choreographed style, but further fusing them with the kind of no-holds-barred ferocity that The Raid films have become known for. It’s pure gun-fu; a real-world variation on the gun-kata style implemented in Equilibrium, but it isn’t ever afraid of culminating in the kind of ground-fighting you’d more commonly expect to see in an MMA cage.
Of course, Wick is afforded more than just pure action perfection, with an intricate level of worldbuilding implemented which is so effective that you’re left not only wanting more from the character, but also wanting to know more about the world that he exists in. Leagues of underground assassins who only trade in distinctive over-sized gold coins; cops and criminals alike, who all know and respect the name, John Wick, and hope that he hasn’t come for them; and almost mythical tales of the bodies that he left behind which helped build the foundations for the criminal enterprises which now run the city.
Populating this environment are Willem Dafoe’s assassin colleague – one of the last of the old guard, who has history with Wick – and Adrianne “Agents of Shield” Palicki’s new blood, with whom you sense some other form of history; Bridget Moynahan as Wick’s devoted wife; and Ian McShane as the eccentric owner of The Continental, a distinctive hotel which is dedicated to protecting its criminal clients from enemies both without and within. The Wire’s Lance Reddick, The Crow’s David Patrick Kelly, and Carlito’s Way’s John Leguizamo further provide welcome, colourful cameos, perfectly rounding out this distinctive new world. Despite not really physically convincing as Cruise’s nemesis in Ghost Protocol, Michael Nyvquist’s big bad is actually quite effective here, playing with idiosyncrasies as he finds equal parts tragedy and comic irony in his circumstances – with a scumbag of a son in Game of Thrones’ weasel, Alfie Allen, who has antagonised the person he’d probably most wished his son could be like.
Set in a world that’s feels lifted straight from the pages of a gritty comic book, Wick is an original screenplay that transforms New York into Frank Miller’s Sin City.
Despite this rich landscape, the filmmakers don’t waste a moment on exposition, instead simply depicting this world as it is, and letting the audience absorb it along the way. Who the hell is John Wick? What’s with the coins and the dinner reservations? Why does everybody know John on a first-name-basis? And what exactly is the penalty for conducting business in The Continental? By eschewing the standard mainstream Hollywood-esque tactics of spoon-feeding you all the answers, John Wick draws you into its wonderful world, and to taking this journey through the bloody criminal underworld side-by-side with its anti-hero protagonist.
A perfected actioner, those less inclined towards pure action fare won't quite get what all the fuss is about, but for those of us who jump aboard this freight train, when the credits roll, the unrelenting experience only leaves you wanting more. More from this world, and more from the characters that populate it. And, ultimately, more from Reeves’ greatest 21st Century incarnation... John. Wick.
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