“In a bar, I once saw him kill three men…with a pencil.”
The lethal former mob enforcer John Wick has much in common with the movie that bears his name. Both are lean, laconic and single-minded, heroically overachieving corpse production engines that run with understated flair and ruthless efficiency. Where the man and the vehicle diverge is in the realm of public regard. John Wick is a truly legendary killer, the type of cold steel assassin whose very mention gives significant pause to the most fearless, formidable and blood-thirsty bosses, hit men and goons the underworld could possibly belch up, a man whose reputation not only precedes him but armors and enhances him against his enemies, who are both legion and, amusingly enough, overmatched. John Wick is a kinetic, though not necessarily balletic, high impact action movie with two clear aims: 1) it seeks to be a vessel worthy enough to contain a legend such as its namesake, and 2) it dearly and desperately wants to be the kind of gritty, violent cult sleeper (think Drive, or Boondock Saints) that, after flailing its way through a necessarily brief theatrical run, gains traction, notoriety, and, eventually, stature, then immortality, in the home video/VOD realm.
It’s strange to talk about potential cult fodder in the present tense. The 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s were full of these kinds of movies (the aughts and teens, I’d argue without first researching, not as much…realizing, of course, that those movies haven’t had nearly the same time to breathe). Some were actually huge hits, some merely eccentric curiosities that stuck, but most all of them are still part of the cinematic vernacular, even decades past what one would assume were their expiration dates. John Wick nakedly aspires to be this kind of movie one day, and though the strain shows in a few unseemly places, the results are generally promising. The film is impressive without being showy, overwrought without being hammy, dark without being stifling. It boasts a memorable and ridiculously overqualified cast, visibly having a more than decent time, cobbles together an effective hero myth out of little more than furtive glances and a couple of tense speeches, and offers complex, elastic, satisfying, multi-tiered action of the hand-to-hand, shootout and automotive varieties. The mayhem, once it starts, rarely stops for a breath. All action films should aspire to this level of efficiency.
John Wick begins, appropriately, at a funeral. The audience recognizes Keanu Reeves immediately, rain-soaked and stoic above the grave, as an implicit focal point, though other background info is elliptical, incomplete, and slow in arriving. The funeral is for John’s wife. Reeves loiters as the mourners disperse and the attendants begin their work. His face betrays little, but he appears stunned nevertheless. As he shuffles away, he is intercepted by, as it turns out, an old work colleague (Willem Dafoe, in full enigma mode), though from exactly where remains vague. There is palpable tension between them. “Just wanted to check up on an old friend,” Dafoe says, before offering a parting handshake. The movie follows the next days of John’s retirement from his former job in a detached, matter-of-fact way. John wakes up and has breakfast. He wheels his mint condition ’69 Mustang out of its garage and travels to a suspiciously obscure racetrack/proving ground, where he pours out his rage and frustration in a display of spontaneous stunt driving that might make the producers of the Fast & Furious franchise at least consider firing their stunt coordinator. There is much to pour out. John Wick is reserved and respectful outwardly, but he just seems dangerous in ways the movie teases but is loath to reveal before it is absolutely necessary. At the very least, people certainly seem to give him a wide berth.
John receives an adorable beagle puppy as a present from his late wife, a totem to help him start dealing with his grief in loving, constructive ways. At first, he is heartbroken all over again, but soon enough the dog casts a spell on him. Tomorrow, slowly but surely, becomes better than today. One day at a gas station, John is accosted by a Russian gang, the leader of which brashly tries to buy his car on the spot. He refuses, and is surprised later that night by home invaders who beat him bloody, steal his car, and callously kill his little dog. Here and only here, when it’s too late for the offending parties, does the movie finally show its hand, and watching them all scatter like roaches, get mowed down like harvest wheat, or wither like time-lapsed fruit drying on the vine is so much of the fun of what follows. John Wick, weeping over his late wife or deceased pet, isn’t just some guy you probably wouldn’t want to mess with at a bar. He’s an infamous former enforcer for the Russian mob with a stash of high tech weaponry buried beneath his basement foundation, whom Reeves effectively plays as a natural disaster with a set target, or as a triggered IED on a delayed but inevitable fuse. The movie treats him as something almost primal. He is, quite simply, a matter of terrible, terrible fact.
None of this qualifies as any sort of spoiler, really. The chop shop owner (a fabulously twitchy John Leguizamo) to whom the gang attempts to sell the stolen car instead runs them out of his establishment and nervously, respectfully, calls John to give him the head’s up. The big mob boss himself (Michael Nyqvist, rough-edged and imperious), whose hotheaded son and heir apparent instigated the heist/mugging, tries, with some desperation (I mean, how many Dons traditionally have allowed anyone in their organizations to simply retire?), to reason with John instead of just arrogantly ordering his death. When a contract becomes the only option, John becomes the target of every hired hood in the five boroughs, including cunning femme fatale (accent on both) Adrianne Palicki and “old friend” Dafoe, a canny, deadly, and deadly confident sniper. Wick checks into a luxury underworld hotel, where, in a delightful twist, détente between warring guests is enforced by the staff (what a kick to see The Wire’s Lance Reddick in a bit part as a concierge of indeterminate accent) and uses it as the base from which to launch his assault(s), which will see him, in turn, demolish a packed disco, an underground bathhouse*, several hotel rooms, a warehouse, and a waterfront pier. The action is fast-moving and stylized, excessive without being assaultive, well-staged, well-photographed and steady throughout, as John demonstrates endless variations on an innovative and fairly thrilling form of extreme close quarters gun combat, with pistols, for all intents and purposes, standing in for his fists. Ever been punched in the face with a bullet or five? It hurts.
*Wick even gives the head bouncer the option of taking the night off, which, knowing the risk, he heartily accepts. Great, great moment.
Praise is due the film, first and foremost, for its exquisite casting, which accomplishes a lot of heavy lifting with minimal effort, a spiritual throwback to idiosyncratic thrillers like Drive or even, say, Blood Simple, where the veritable rogue’s gallery of faces says almost all that’s necessary about its characters before their attached mouths even have a chance to open. What exactly about Ian McShane’s (Deadwood) weathered features and smugly defiant attitude projects weakness or incompetence? When has Willem Dafoe ever been anything close to an open book on screen? If the movie requires a smarmy, spineless henchman to beat on for a while, who better to play him than Oz’s Dean Winters? After four years of watching Game of Thrones, no one should need a refresher on the type of haughty, entitled dipsh*t Alfie Allen (a.k.a. Theon Greyjoy) specializes in playing. His trust fund mobster is the only person in the entire movie who doesn’t instantly acknowledge the threat Wick poses, though he is educated in due time, and thoroughly. It’s always a pleasure to watch great character actors work, and, for a movie that so often seems in a headlong rush to reconnoiter the next killing zone, or spring it like a jack-in-the-box, John Wick affords its talented ensemble the chance to make not just a cool entrance but a lingering impression.
As for the titular seeker of vengeance, Reeves allows us occasional peeks at the weary, damaged soul beneath all that Kevlar and simmering hate, but largely lets his prodigious actions speak louder than words. It is very sound strategy. The film chews like a hay thresher, but never quite bites off more than it can handle. It seems a simple mechanism, which only belies its relatively careful construction. Moreover, I don’t buy that John Wick is the kind of role anyone could play, in part because of its extreme physicality, but also due to the gravitas it seeks to project. This doesn’t feel like a role Liam Neeson turned down. For all his success, Keanu Reeves has been routinely mocked throughout his career just about whenever he opens his mouth, but he also has an inherent intensity that movies all too often squander, misdirect, or snuff out altogether. John Wick is the first movie of his I’ve seen since the original Matrix to make excellent use of it, and creates in the process a mysterious, disturbingly capable antihero, unknowable but still relatable, one who gives no quarter, offers no apologies, and wastes not a single word…the kind, in other words, who might, indeed, just stand the test of time.
“John Wick” (2014) 3/4 stars