John Wick is a grieving widower who also happens to be a deadly, albeit retired, assassin. When gangsters kill his dog, a final present from his dead wife, he un-retires himself to ensure that they understand the grievous nature of their error.
I did not expect much of John Wick. I had heard that it was violent and revenge-filled, and I turned to it when I wanted something violent and revenge-filled. I was hoping for an hour or so of justified violence, some exciting car chases, and a satisfying resolution. I misjudged John Wick. It absolutely is a satisfying and violent revenge fantasy, filled with gunfire and martial arts. But it’s also more than that – a better, more thoughtful film is interwoven with the action.
The first tent or so minutes are incredibly well done. They paint a convincing portrait of John Wick’s lonely existence, his grief slowly alleviated by the dog. As a portrayal of loss and redemption, it’s gentle, convincing, and clever. When the action ramps up, much of that grace is lost, but it serves to fully establish and justify the protagonist’s actions, when a simple retelling of the plot – a guy killed his dog so he kills everyone – fails to do so.
John Wick takes place in the world that should be familiar from Blade and every other nineties’ action film. Unrepentant gangsters carouse in elaborate clubs, throwing diamonds to half-naked waitresses and firing guns whenever they feel like it. The underworld is more prominent than the overworld, and authorities/civilians are basically absent. It’s a conceit of the genre, but it’s a fun one, and I have no problems whatsoever with it.
It’s a pretty film, aiming for artistic rather than realistic. I vastly prefer the somewhat studied appearance of the shots to the self-consciously gritty style, with lots of shaking cameras and confusion. If you’re going to be self-conscious about film-making, at least produce something worth looking at. The subtitles are a little over-the-top, I find, too stylised relative to the rest of the film, but I can see what they were going for. Just like the world, the look of John Wick is hyper-real, society and spectacle highlighted and refined, rather than making an attempt at realism.
The action is everything that you could hope for. A range of guns and other weaponry make an appearance, people leap all over the place, and guards are taken down with style and flair. The fight scenes are over-the-top and occasionally ridiculous, but that is part of the draw for this kind of film. Glass smashes, lights flash, and techno music pounds. It’s fun.
Mention should be made of the supporting cast. Keanu Reeves plays his part well, but to my mind the best character was Willem Defoe, playing a grizzled hitman. Those of you who don’t share my admiration for Willem Defoe, no matter what film he’s in, Michael Nyqvist is one to watch. As a mob boss who knows he’s doomed from early on, but plays his part to the end, he’s exceptional.
What surprised me most about this film was how sensitive it was. Yes, it’s a violent romp. But chaotic gunfights aside, it’s more of a Western than it is an action film. There’s a clear moral and societal code that every character lives by, and a sense of gloomy inevitability to the way the whole thing plays out. Vigilante films are not known for their thematic depth or consistency, but John Wick is a deeper and more thoughtful film than it would first appear.
I really liked this film. I’m a little worried that it will suffer the same fate as so many surprisingly good films, in that the sequels will be made by people who have no idea what made the first film good, but as a standalone, it’s far better than I expected, and one of the best action films I’ve seen in ages. I’d recommend it.