In John Wick, gunplay is a martial art. Keanu Reeves’ titular assassin whirls, spins, rolls and twists with gun in hand, firing off bullets at hordes of incoming adversaries with pinpoint accuracy. He’ll stop to reload when he must — this isn’t a never-run-out-of-bullets fantasy – but it’s treated as a small pesky misstep in the middle of an elaborate dance. So get happy, Keanu apologists: John Wick is the movie you’ve been waiting your whole lives for. (Or at least since The Matrix.)
And even if you don’t go in as a member of Team Keanu, you might be wanting to sign up after you come out. John Wick is the best straight-forward action movie I’ve seen in a good long while. It’s better than Jack Reacher. It’s better than The Raid. It’s not nearly as artsy-fartsy as Drive but is stylish enough to put it light years beyond whatever Expendables sequel hit theaters last. It’s simple and violent and damn near close to perfect.
The film opens under a haze of melancholy. Retired assassin John Wick’s wife has died after losing a battle with some unnamed disease. Images of her life and death flicker through Wick’s mind as he aimlessly goes about his day, which often consists of little more than angrily driving his ’69 Mustang around a deserted air strip. He finds hope for the future only after a delivery worker drops off a gift from his late wife: the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen. It’s her way of giving him something to love and care for now that she’s gone. Things start to look up for John. And then a couple of Russian mafia jackoffs, not realizing who they’re dealing with, steal Wick’s car and kill the dog.
So it’s a revenge picture, with Reeves’ Wick tearing apart a criminal organization from bottom to top all because the boss’s idiot son (played to great moronic effect by Alfie Allen) decided to mess with the wrong guy. Like I said, it’s simple, but I often find simplicity to be a strength when it comes to the action genre. What matters is style and propulsion, both of which Wick has in spades. The film zips by at just a bit over an hour and a half, wisely using each and every minute without dragging things out too long in the end. The fight choreography is breathtaking. As just one example, there’s a bit where Wick hits a goon with his car, then shoots him through the roof as the guy is helplessly flying over the top of the vehicle. That sound cool to you? Expect to see a lot of that type of thing.
The knock on Reeves has always been that he gives wooden performances. Honestly, John Wick isn’t going to change anyone’s mind in that regard. But here, at least, the stiffness fits the character. Reeves capably sells the role’s physicality, while the lack of emotion in his line delivery helps convey Wick’s drained emotional core. And, hey, if it’s acting with a capital “A” you want, don’t fear because John Wick’s casting directors are obviously big, big fans of HBO. Alongside Game of Thrones’ Allen, the supporting cast also features Deadwood’s Ian McShane, The Wire’s Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters, and even, in a brief but hilarious scene, Thomas Sadoski from The Newsroom. Cast members without their own HBO shows (but whom are still excellent both here and usually in general) include Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki and Michael Nyqvist, the latter of whom has somehow wound up playing the heavy in two of the best action movies of the decade so far – this and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Most of these actors play either assassins or employees working in a hidden community designed to accommodate and support assassins. John Wick pulls off some neat world-building, giving trained killers their own hotel, their own clean-up crew and their own working economy, which runs on its own unique currency. The movie still would have been good without these clever touches, but their inclusion adds color and depth to a film that’s mostly just about the killin’.
John Wick was helmed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two long-time stuntmen and stunt coordinators making their directorial debuts, and, as a result, there’s an assuredness and sense of purpose that drives the action scenes. The two wisely let the impressive choreography speak for itself without employing any annoying shaky cam or other needless distractions. They are hardly the first stunt guys to become full-fledged filmmakers. Hal Needham did it way back in the 70s with Smokey and the Bandit. But what they’ve pulled off here makes you wonder if more folks from the stunt world should try to step behind the camera.
The film arrives in Taken’s continuing wake. It’s easy to assume that someone saw the grosses for the Liam Neeson hit and figured what worked for Neeson could work for Reeves. That person was not wrong, but now that John Wick is here in all of its badass glory, it ends up leaving Taken — and pretty much every other recent action film — in the dust.