John Wick (2015) is something of a throwback in more ways than one. Not only does its lean thriller narrative combine with stylish cool and almost balletic combat to echo the familiar influences of Eastern action cinema, but the eponymous Wick himself (Keanu Reeves) is a man coming out of retirement. Fortunately, the direction by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch is anything but passé, utilising their own fight choreography experience to blistering effect in crafting a raucously entertaining revenge shoot-’em-up. It may not be enough to provide a shot in the arm for a flailing genre, but puts to shame the bloated banality of most recent mainstream actioners.
The premise seems like something that Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp – purveyors of recent geriatric disappointments, Taken 3 and 3 Days to Kill – would lap up. Wick is a widower with a particular set of skills, who lets loose after some young punks steal his car and kill his puppy. The dog was a final gift from his deceased wife, and the grief of their loss drives him to kick some serious ass. Luckily, the filmmakers have a far better grasp of the conceit’s inherent silliness than EuropaCorp have shown of late and John Wick manages to commit to its slick and brutal violence while keeping a tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. One of the most enjoyable sequences, outside of the bullet-strewn mayhem, is the one in which Wick’s legend is recounted by mob boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).
His son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), is the one who raided John’s house and he is brought up to speed with a fantastic foreboding as Viggo describes Wick as the man he used to send to kill the Bogeyman. Now the Bogeyman’s bogeyman is coming for them and his sheer force of will is brilliantly, and ridiculously, illustrated as he pounds a hole in the concrete floor in his garage with a hammer to reveal a cache of guns and gold pieces. Those guns are put to startlingly impressive effect as Wick proves to be more than just dogged – he has a real flair for killing folks. Through a variety of settings, he takes out innumerable foes in sleek and propulsive action set-pieces that truly prove exhilarating. His no-nonsense attitude is captured in a tendency to finish people off with a shot to the head, even mid-flow, topping a perfect blend of grace and muscle with a unusually unique calling card. Fisticuffs aside, the plot moves as quickly and seamlessly through several gears upping the stakes and the bone-crunching as it goes.
Reeves is perfect in the role, using what he has to great effect both in his stoicism, and wit. Indeed, he also does a surprisingly good job in the more emotional early scenes which show those cringeworthy family/motivation scenes at the begin of the Taken films how it’s done – despite Neeson’s considerably more lauded acting ability. It feels as though nobody else could have played John Wick, and Reeves is surrounded by other solid performers; not least in Ian McShane’s appearance as the proprietor of a hotel for assassins, and Willem Dafoe’s truncated turn as Wick’s mentor. Admittedly characterisation is secondary, though, because above all else John Wick is a lean, mean revenger to go with its ice-cold protagonist. It’s not perfect, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable action movie this year.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson