With the dominant trend of modern blockbuster films to either set themselves in fantastical universes or use an inordinate amount of shakycam in their action sequences, fans of well-composed, semi-realistic, fight sequences have increasingly had to turn to foreign shores for their fix. The Indonesian Raid films have thus far provided the best straight action films of recent years, but this Keanu Reeves comeback vehicle has finally given us an American challenger. John Wick is an incredibly exciting hit of adrenaline-based filmmaking, directed with supreme confidence by first-timers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and set in an atmospheric universe of gentleman assassins and hitman hotels.
Reeves plays the eponymous Wick, a retired enforcer for the Russian mob who left the gangster life for a happy marriage after completing an apparently impossible task. Unfortunately, his wife dies of an unnamed illness, leaving him utterly alone, his former line of work not lending itself to lasting friendships. His last link to the world is the dog that his wife left for him (so that he would have something to grieve alongside), a ridiculously adorable beagle puppy named Daisy. Only a few days after Wick and Daisy are united, some thugs break into his home to steal his car, ending up brutally beating John and murdering Daisy. Making the matter more complicated is the identity of the attackers, led by Iosiv Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of John’s old boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Knowing that John’s wrath is coming and fearing for his business and life, Viggo makes a vain attempt to encourage Wick to talk out his differences. This is met with a predictable silence, and so the stage is set for Keanu to kill the entire male Russian population of New York.
He does so in some of most virtuoso shootout scenes in recent memory, combining judo, kung fu, and steady unbroken camera work. Beyond being exhilarating, it’s also a display for incredible stunt work, performed mainly by the leading man himself. Directed by his former stunt double on the Matrix and making very little use of slow motion, Reeves performs physical feats that would be beyond most actors half his age. Every sequence, from an incredible early fight in Wick’s home, to a stunning encounter in a nightclub and a visceral brawl in a church is more memorable than anything in the repertoire of the rebooted Liam Neeson or other recent revenge thrillers.
The slickness of the action extends into much of the rest of the film, all muted colours and straight lines, although let down somewhat by an overuse of city skyline shots and some atrocious subtitling when characters speak Russian. The heavy use of grey does not mean John Wick is a gritty, serious, film, however, far from it. John Wick is essentially nonsense, but everyone is in on the joke, no better demonstrated than by the Continental Hotel. An establishment exclusively for the world’s elite contract killers, on whose premises no ‘business’ is allowed and run by the brilliantly deadpan Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, it’s a fantastic conceit and gives John Wick a sense of identity well beyond a generic shoot-em-up.
Compared favourably to the output of John Woo and other Hong Kong action maestros, John Wick is a very rare kind of gangster thriller, relying more heavily on the skills of its performers and brilliant choreography than any kind of trickery or special effects. Very slight in plot and lacking any subtlety in its dialogue, it exists solely to showcase the plentiful action skills of everyone involved. Granted, this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’ve ever appreciated a well-made fight scene, John Wick is absolutely essential.