Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: John Wick (2014)

John Wick (2014)

Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use

John Wick is simple, straightforward, and damned effective. It's proof that Keanu Reeves still "has it" when it comes to great action movies, and that he can play more than just riffs on Neo or Ted Logan, but if that's all it had going for it, it wouldn't have been half as good a time as it is. It manages to build up a convincing world of criminal life, the rest of the cast all do their part in bringing this world to life, and most importantly, when it gets down to showing Keanu kicking ass, it simply does not let up. Is it a deep film? No, but it does what it does near-perfectly.

The film is about the titular John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a man whose wife recently passed away after losing a long battle with illness. Before she died, she adopted a puppy for him, to give him some last reminder of her. Unfortunately, while John fills up his classic Mustang one day, the spoiled brat son of a Russian mob boss sees it, decides that he should have it, and won't take no for an answer. He and a couple of his thugs break into John's house that night, steal his car, kill his dog, and beat him half to death when he tries to stop them. The kid's dad is understandably furious at him, though less for what he did and more for who he did it to: unbeknownst to him, John is a retired hitman, having been one of the best and most feared in the business before he hung it up and got out to settle down with his wife. And now, John is coming for him and, by extension, the whole Russian mafia organization protecting him.

What elevates John Wick beyond just a simple shoot-em-up (though it works wonders on that level too) is how it manages to take its time in developing just about every character and institution in the film. It does so without any glaring infodumps (the film clocks in at around 100 minutes), managing to have characters reveal more about the world around them with a single off-handed remark than with any lengthy explanation. It's easy to follow without insulting viewers' intelligence, creating a world that feels as lived-in and fleshed-out as the setting of a good Grand Theft Auto game. It helps that the makers of this film enlisted a large stable of high-caliber actors, many of them in "blink and you'll miss 'em" roles -- John Leguizamo as the owner of a chop shop, Bridget Moynahan as John's late wife, Willem Dafoe as a veteran assassin who mentored John, Michael Nyqvist as the head of the Russian mob, and Adrianne Palicki as a femme fatale assassin after John are just some of the more notable examples. It creates a world that's just slightly larger than life, one you could imagine existing alongside our own but which is still jam-packed with memorable characters, outrageous scenarios, and its own strange quirks.

Next, we come to Keanu Reeves as John Wick. As much as people have mocked his lack of range over the course of his career, he is very good at what he does, and that is play cold, driven men who know how to kick ass. And he was perfectly cast here, once more proving that he deserves to be taken seriously as an action hero even now that he's fifty years old. He also gives this film its human heart, believe it or not, when he grieves at the loss of his wife and then his dog in a scene that justified his rampage over the course of the film in a matter of minutes. Neo he ain't -- you get the feeling that John isn't an emotionless cipher, but a man who represses his emotions lest he lose control, as he does here. Keanu had a fine line to walk playing John, but he nailed it.

Last but certainly not least, there's the action in this film. The sweet, sweet action. This is a movie that clearly hearkens back to the '90s, the "golden age" of Hong Kong action cinema a la John Woo, and it's visible in more than just the casting of the star of The Matrix (the film that brought that style to Western shores) as the hero. This film is firm in its rejection of the hyperkinetic, ADHD-addled cinematography that Paul Greengrass unwittingly released upon the world, with this film's action beautifully treading the line between eye-popping style and visual coherence. Shootouts and brawls look graceful, like violent dances, reminding me just why that visual style was so successful before it got run into the ground by lesser directors who only saw its flashier tricks. It's refreshingly old-school the way this film is shot, and it sucked me right in and made me pay attention better than any amount of shaky footage trying to imitate the look of poorly-shot YouTube videos. (I've said it before, and I'll say it again: please cut it out with that ugly look.) Big props go out to this film's directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, as well as cinematographer Jonathan Sela, for making one of the best-looking action films of 2014.

Score: 4 out of 5

And I was very close to giving this film a 5. While it didn't quite go over-the-top into that classic territory, this is still the sort of film that we desperately need more of in the action genre: hard-hitting, stylish, and above all, well-made, with great performances and a world I want to see more of in sequels.

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