John Wick is the best action movie I have seen in many a moon. It delivers so much on the action front, yet takes the time to be thoughtful, caring, and utterly confident. It knows instinctively what an action movie should and should not be, and cleverly positions itself in the middle, with a plot that acts like a fuse to a bomb after it’s been lit. So often action movies dim down mood and characterisation to make way for chaotic stunts, but John Wick is a movie of such generosity that the stunts never upstage what is really happening. There’s a story within a story here. You just have to look for it.
The story we see is one of revenge. Straight up. No extras. The one we don’t see involves a community of hired assassins who live by strict codes and whose skills are highly sought after, usually by nefarious people. I’ll get to this community later — it is the movie’s great joy.
The story begins in medias res with one of those disjointed scenes that doesn’t mean very much on its own; it requires the rest of the movie to lead us into it. Then John Wick (Keanu Reeves) loses his wife to an illness. At her funeral, he is approached by Willem Dafoe, who consoles him and advises him to stay away from “the life”. What is this life? Why should it be avoided?
John returns to his luxurious house, driving his classic Ford Mustang. Why is his house so pretty? What does he do for a living? Is it somehow connected to this “life” Dafoe speaks of?
A package arrives with a letter. It’s from his wife, who writes from the beyond. With it comes a puppy, a kind of parting memento. I am intrigued by this dog; I might do further reading on the film’s handling of it. It’s such a joyful bundle, as most pups are, but this one seems oddly like Reeves’ real pet; it clings to him naturally, not because its owner is off screen gesticulating directions. I must say it (yes, the dog) is a good actor. It knows how to play the game. It knows how to feed off our affection for cute cuddly animals. It knows how to build up and pay off, so that when the payoff finally comes, in a gruesome burglary scene, we’re saddened that the pup is not as good as Underdog.
So John’s house has been broken into. He’s been beaten. His Mustang has been stolen and a bat has been wedged into the windshield of his SUV. Something has happened to the puppy. He visits his car mechanic friend (John Leguizamo), who buys stolen muscle cars and, as they say, pimps them up. The friend tells him Viggo’s son (Alfie Allen) stole the Mustang and tried to sell it to him.
Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) is a Russian mob boss, who knows that stealing John Wick’s car is like snatching Satan’s pitchfork out of his hand and tossing it into heaven. He tries to bargain with John, who has none of it. So it begins. The fuse has been lit, the movie powers through till the bomb explodes. John decides to come out of retirement to kill Viggo’s son — I like the way John has kept his guns under a concrete floor, so that the only way to get them out again is to smash through with a sledgehammer — and Viggo must try to stop him, because his son is a worthless ninny who’s good at drinking and partying and running through a crowd in a towel, but not very smart when it comes to business.
This, of course, sets up plenty scenes in which John is faced with platoons of malodorous henchmen. Usually such scenes would be tedious and repetitive, but the choreography of John Wick, which the filmmakers have attributed to Hong Kong martial arts and gun-fu, is exhilarating to a fault. The action is never ingratiating or contrived. I applaud the filmmakers for remembering that guns eventually run out of bullets, although where John stashes all his magazines remains a mystery.
But I wasn’t impressed most by the action, or the characters, who remain in two-dimensional action movie limbo. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and writer Derek Kolstad, have very adroitly drawn a broad society of assassins behind the facade of their movie without directly pointing to it. Here’s a little test for you, one that’s simple but rewarding if you pass: Try to discern if anyone in the movie, at any time, mentions what they do, how they do it, or who they do it for. Try to discern also the importance of The Continental hotel before the movie’s climax comes around, and what kind of character Ian McShane plays. Better yet, try to determine who John Wick is by the time he first arrives at The Continental. The movie is so good at keeping identities a secret, and building up myths and suspicions around them, that the smarter, more independent viewers in the audience will want to hug the filmmakers for treating them with so much respect. By the end, we know all there is to know about this society, and not a word about it was spoken.
Best Moment | The opening fight scene in John’s house. Wonderfully sublime action filmmaking.
Worst Moment | Nope.