IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 101 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Wick loses his wife Helen to an undisclosed illness. The day after the funeral, he receives a gift from her posthumously in the form of a puppy named Daisy, along with a letter from her saying she arranged for him to have Daisy to help him cope with her demise. Initially indifferent to Daisy, he eventually connects to the puppy, but when he refuses to sells his car to Russian gangster Iosef, he’s attacked in his house and has to watch Daisy getting killed. Iosef is later told by his father, Viggo Tarasov, who is head of the Russian crime syndicate in New York, that John was once his best assassin and had helped Viggo gain control of his syndicate by single-handedly eliminating all competition….
If you’re a regular reader of this website than you’ll probably be sick of me moaning about the way action in many modern films is often reduced to a headache-inducing blur of quick edits and shakycam where not only is it hard to tell what is actually going on but the viewer stands a good chance of feeling sick or getting a headache. I’m glad that I wasn’t the one who reviewed, for instance, Fast And Furious 7, because I would have most likely spent the best part of a whole paragraph complaining about director James Wan’s [good horror director yes, good action director most definitely not] reluctance to show us much of its awesomely over the top action properly. Now I am certainly aware that some filmmakers do this kind of thing better than others. Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay, for instance, certainly know what they’re doing through choice of shots, edits and pacing even if the end result isn’t always too pleasing to watch. But in many instances it’s become laziness, with shakycam and fast cutting helping to cover up cast members not having much fighting ability and limited or poor choreography. I was watching Alex Cross on TV a short while ago and noticed during the end fight that someone was supposedly slamming his opponent’s head into a railing, only that if you looked closely you can see that the head actually never makes impact with the railing, and that the idiot director was trying to overuse the shaky cam to hide that fact.
Well, hurrah for John Wick, which seems like a breath of fresh air. The film, obviously influenced by The Killer and Point Blank amongst others, isn’t any sort of classic, even of the ‘switch your brain off’ action movie kind. If it had come out in the 80’s or the 90’s, decades which had scores of great action movies, films which are still supremely entertaining when seen today, it would rank as just a typical, unremarkable, if undeniably decent, effort. Compared with the crap we get today though, it seems like a bloody masterpiece. While no blockbuster, the overall good reception that John Wick has received gives me faith that the tide could turn and we could have a return to the days when you could go to the cinema and look forward to enjoying action sequences rather than dread them because you stand a good chance of getting a migraine as well as witnessing the depressing sight of filmmakers breaking the simplest, most obvious rules of filmmaking.
The plot is as simplistic as you can get, though I will say that the world of this film, where killers exist in a secretive underground society where gold coins are the only currency, hotels have special rooms for assassins to stay in and secret night clubs exist which only a select few can enter, and – no matter how many people you kill – all you need to do is make one phone call and a team of people will come round and clean everything up, is an interesting one. A sequel to John Wick is being considered, and I hope that it will explore further this fascinating, almost ritualistic world which reminded me of that of the Yakuza. Of course the overall story has been done a thousand times before, I mean how many retired gangsters or killers have we seen who try to get out of the life and find themselves drawn back into it, and how many tales of revenge have we seen? – in fact, why do idiot bad guys still keep leaving victims alive so they can embark on vengeance? John Wick’s roaring rampage of revenge is, on the surface, basically because his dog is killed, which sounds like real desperation on the part on the screenwriters, though of course the dog was the last gift he received from his dead wife, and therefore meant a great deal to him. One of the things I liked about this movie was the way it didn’t feel the need to explain everything, with a tantalising vagueness that reminded me of Walter Hill. No, this isn’t really an intelligent film, but it’s made for people who don’t need everything spelt out.
It’s actually quite a while before we get any action, the film giving us a real feel of its hero’s depressed life, aided by muted colours which deliberately jar with colourful flashes of happy days with John’s wife [Bridget Fonda in a rather thankless role, though you could say it’s an important one]. The dog is certainly a cutie, and we get a sense of a growing bond in a few short scenes before trouble starts. Wick doesn’t seem like an overly formidable character the way he is quickly clunked on the head and beaten while having to watch his dog getting killed [only partially shown, dog lovers], but he is built up in great fashion when Viggo tells his son that Wick made me become the gangster boss that he now is, and that: “John wasn’t exactly the boogeyman. He’s the one you sent to kill the f***ing bogeyman” . Viggo sends a load of assassins round Wick’s house, but they are dispatched in a terrific melee of gunfire and hand to hand combat. This film doesn’t really differentiate – in a gunfight, you’re just as likely to smash someone in the face with your gun as well as fire it. And you can see it all properly, bar the odd jerky handheld shot which seems more like inexperience than anything else.
The final two thirds is pretty much all action, with John wasting more and more bad guys, with a few moments of low key humour dotted here and there. The highlight is an amazing set piece in a nightclub, where the bilious blue and red lighting and pounding techno music enhance the brutal mayhem, and brutal it certainly is [this film would probably have got an ‘18’ rating ten years ago]. The story only occasionally goes in interesting directions and the film suffers from having the kind of climactic showdown that I call suffering from ‘Big Boss’ syndrome, where Bruce Lee’s opponent in the 1971 film is obviously no match for him and the filmmakers struggle to give the impression that he’s formidable and is giving Lee a run for his money. Still, the other brawls throughout, if fairly short, combine mixed martial arts and street fighting to exciting effect. Keanu Reeves really is quite convincing in all this. Of course he wouldn’t stand a chance against the likes of Iko Uwais or Tony Jaa, but he’s learnt enough martial arts, and looks amazingly fit and lean for a 50 year old, for the film to work. Even after all these years he’s still not much of an actor, but he does project an appealing emotional honesty, and the film seems to slightly riff on some of his earlier roles without deliberately referencing them [except for one, though blink and you’ll miss it], while folk like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Michael Nyqvist, excellent as the boss Viggo, are around for the real acting and usually come up trumps.
There isn’t really anything special about John Wick, which doesn’t quite deliver the total adrenalin rush that a classic of its type should, and it does suffer from certain things like having unconvincing CGI muzzles flashes and unconvincing CGI blood which it really didn’t need to have, but by God the action movie genre needed to have this movie at this time. Thank God for former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who directed it. Matthew Vaughn, Marc Forster, Francis Lawrence, Olivier Megaton, Patrick Hughes, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hooper, Zach Snyder, Kevin Macdonald, etc. [the list goes on and on]….take a long hard look. This is how it’s done. Action that you can actually see, and therefore enjoy and not want to look away. Bravo!