John Wick surprised me. Not in its content. What you see in the commercials is what you get in the theater. Instead, it startled me with how much I enjoyed it.*
John Wick is what it is and nothing more, but it’s a masterful example of what it is: a straightforward action flick that would’ve starred Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal back in the day. If that interests you, then you’ve probably seen before everything John Wick has to offer. I know I’ve lost track of all those retired bad-asses drawn back into the game by the need for revenge. I’ve also seen mentor and mentee assassins, and I’ve known plenty other Russian mafiosos with callow sons. **
But despite the retro plot elements, the movie achieves its own unique, modern vibe. Had John Wick been filmed in the 80s, it would have been as loud and ugly as it was dumb and violent. Instead, first-time director Chad Stahelski has created something a little bit dumb and entirely violent, but also smooth and stylish.
It’s frankly amazing how posh this genre has become. John Wick stops short of the Sin City-level of stylized, but it has a toe slightly over the line. So many sleek, powerful cars. So many natty suits. Keanu Reeves looks as much like a Prada model as ever. Such a civilized and urbane veneer disguising the underbelly of the beast.
A key to the movie’s success is that it’s as much about the shadowy criminal society Wick navigates as it is about Wick’s quest to kill the man who killed his dog. It’s a world where you trade one solid gold coin for each dead body you need professionally adios-ed. And that’s just one of many delightfully weird moments that transpire in a wholly matter-of-fact fashion.
Speaking of dead bodies, I admit I entered the theater with an attitude about the basic premise. To my mind, no dog – no matter how cuddly and lovable – is worth taking 60+ human lives (at least). They’re conveyed as meaningless henchmen deaths, but if we don’t care about them, why do we care about Wick exactly? He once was what they are currently, and if he can redeem himself, why can’t they? But I gradually came to understand that the puppy isn’t the point.
Yes, a puppy is clubbed to death (off-screen, with far more discretion than is afforded to several humans receiving bullets to the face). But that isn’t really why Wick goes on a killing spree. I don’t even really buy into the rationale that it’s the metaphorical meaning that Wick attaches to the puppy. I personally see this as a movie about widower working his way through the anger phase of his grief cycle in a hail of bullets. You either get on board with that or you don’t.
The well-staged fight choreography will help with that. The action looks and feels real and brutal. Elegant as it is, it also seems satisfyingly difficult. Action movies always seem to have at least one scene in which a bad-ass breaks someone’s neck with just a swift, little twist. This usually looks like it takes less effort than twisting off a bottle cap. Not here. Wick does overpower many of his enemies within seconds, but it always still manages to look like a job of work.
* Particularly because a convenient matinee time factored more heavily into my decision to buy a ticket than any real desire to see it.
** My first recorded sighting: 1997 in The Saint.