Keanu Reeves graces our cinema screens once more and it’s in a film that only uses martial arts sparingly.1 John Wick, helmed by veteran stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, is a lean and knowingly facile thriller that represents something of a refreshing return to simplistic shoot-em-up cinema. As much as that might read as a negative, the film embodies something lacking of late, a big name thriller not bogged down by questions of morality and fate or a need for a dark and edgy narrative. John Wick is what it is, for better or worse, and as a piece of popcorn entertainment it’s mostly successful.
As a film about a hitman with a mysterious backstory, John Wick doesn’t worry too much about the actual content of said backstory. The first twenty minutes of the film boil down to ‘John Wick’s wife and dog are dead and now he wants to kill everyone’, and even a premise this simplistic takes slightly too long to reach its obvious zenith. Thankfully the death of Daisy, the puppy his wife gifted to him after her passing as a companion through his grief, is handled with perhaps as much restraint and as swiftly as possible, yet one gets the sense that a title card explaining the basic plot of the film would have been as sufficient. All we do in this first section is narratively tread water, awaiting the actual vengeance among some fairly garish blue and orange tinted cinematography.2
John Wick isn’t quite the return to form of American action cinema, but it should represent the bare minimum needed for a film of this ilk. We have an intentionally sparse backstory, a swathe of amusing character actors, minimal dialogue, a whole heap of choreographed shootouts and fights ranging from exhilarating to pedestrian.3 Tonally it dabbles in self-awareness, with some very funny scenes that play against the typical action thriller early on in the film – the police showing up after a fight, a body disposal crew – but doesn’t quite verge into parody. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing, though, as it avoids the pitfalls of laboured jokes and manages to in fact craft some amusing and intriguing twists on the hitman mythos, most notably with a hotel which is “off-limits” for any violent activity. The lack of a consistent tone does drag down the middle of the picture, the laughs dry up and things seems a little too serious, it diverts from a fun romp into almost reflexive sequence order. The film glides along with the pacing of a video game, level by level until reaching the big boss and while this comparison might strike as apt for many of the shootout sequences – where even reloading is an issue – it does tend to reduce things to a stage by stage affair.4
It also owes quite a debt to non-English language thrillers. A Bittersweet Life seemed to be the biggest reference point for me, and also the work of Johnnie To, though some of the visual bravado of his films is missing here. There’s also perhaps an unintentional pilfering of the French thriller Sleepless Night in the nightclub sequence and the lighting in the sauna fight is nothing if not remniscent of Refn’s Only God Forgives. One gets the sense that these influences are less worn on the sleeve of the film than things absorbed by the filmmakers; it’s a pale imitation of those films at points, but such a pale imitation doesn’t fail to be entertaining and engrossing.
It’s great to see Reeves put his stoicism to good use and his deadpan delivery does, in fact, manage to lift many of the clunky lines of dialogue that he’s given. Willem Dafoe, on the other hand, is disappointing (and very much underused) as a fellow hitman whilst Michael Nyqvist, the original Mikael Blomkvist, plays a more camp variation of his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol villain as Viggo, the head of a New York-based crime syndicate. Nyqivst, whilst often amusing in manner – the plot plays with the idea of professional relationships and business decisions in quite a funny way – isn’t particularly compelling, primarily as a result of how dull his son is, Alfie Allen not quite able to carry a Russian accent as the instigator of the plot’s mayhem. Like Allen, who harks from HBO’s Game of Thrones, much of the supporting cast are more known for their TV work, Friday Night Lights‘ Adrianne Palicki and a whole host of HBO familiar faces, most notably Ian McShane (Deadwood), who obviously relishes his too brief screentime and lifts every scene in which he appears.5
Despite its inability to maintain a tongue in cheek tone throughout, John Wick is a well-oiled series of shootouts and fights, choreographed by people who know exactly what they’re looking for in terms of sudden and thrilling violence. At a brisk 96 minutes that probably could have used ten less, it remains a mostly amusing throwback to a more simplistic time in action cinema.
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