Imagine for a second if, in Die Hard, Hans Gruber not only knew who John McClane was, but knew the reputation he’d grow to have over the next few movies. Exactly how much bad guy shit McClane would put pay to over the years. Exactly how many mercenaries would die. Knowing, with grim inevitability, that he was destined to lose and McClane was destined to win, and that really the only thing left was the time it was going to take. Would it change his perspective? Alter the way he handled the situation?
John Wick – which doesn’t cleave anywhere near close to the Die Hard mold, but perches firmly atop the action genre in its present form – works from more or less this perspective. For while head goon Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) doesn’t know what John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is going to do… he knows what he’s already done. He knows the odds. He’s aware of what he’s up against. The question for Tarasov is not if Wick is coming, but how much time he has left ’til Wick gets to him. And when death is as good as certain, how much time matters?
Single-handedly reviving the notion of Keanu Reeves as a credible leading man, John Wick exists in an action movie universe separate from our own, similar to the way in which Kill Bill had its own little laws and exceptions that tweaked it into hyper reality. Here, hotels cater specifically to mafiosos and contract killers, a system perpetuated by a specific set of rules. One gets the impression, watching the film, that shit like this happens all the time.
So what’s happening?
Well, John Wick was out of the game, living in his luxury home, quietly grieving the death of his wife. Her last gift to him was a charming little puppy. Man, John loved that dog. By chance one day he stops to fill up his car and runs into Tarasov’s son Iosef (Alfie Allen). Iosef takes a liking to Wick’s car, so comes by his house in the night to steal it. In doing so he also kills the dog.
Losing the only tether to his ‘retired’ life, Iosef’s actions set Wick in motion. Revenge is all that’s left. Tarasov knows his reputation, and the hangdog way in which he resigns himself to what follows is one of the wry tweaks to the formula that Derek Kolstad’s screenplay makes. We’re invited to watch Wick storm the castle, taking down the villains one by one as though replaying a video game he’s aced for the thousandth time. That sounds a lot less fun that it turns out to be. Because fortunately directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch bring to the table not only some effortless cool, but a supremely effective sense of continuity to their action scenes. Continuity that lifts John Wick above most of its competition.
Much of modern action is hampered by the cutting. Editing that’s so frantic, so desperate for immediacy you can barely keep up with it. It sacrifices narrative sense and, in the process, viewer satisfaction. For all the flying bullets and carnage, we simply forget to care. The Raid and it’s sequel recently stood out from the crowd because they frequently took the time to present sustained shots that followed the action instead of cutting through it. John Wick employs the same, highly effective technique. It’s not especially new. Asian action films have been doing it for decades. Yet this move against the grain of Western convention proves a winner. There’s a base gleefulness in watching Reeves playing Wick, confidently marching around a club that looks like it’s been lit for use in Only God Forgives, calmly taking out the bad guys one by one. And always, always taking the time to finish them off with a head shot. Just to be sure.
The action is confident, occasionally clever, frequently amusing. Stahelski and Leitch know their genre and mine it for its potential as much as they can.
Reeves, whose name has been bubbling back up to the surface over the last few years, owns the titular role. And while it doesn’t exactly stretch him as an actor, he fits into it just like he fits into those fine suits of his. It’s like he’s never been away, and the screen is very happy to have him back. Elsewhere smaller roles for the likes of Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and John Leguizamo prove proportionally rewarding. John Wick is a super-stylish actioner and its wry winks to the camera propel it forward with barely a wrong footing for the first hour at least.
Ultimately the film’s limitations (an overlong third act, an unsurprising lack of depth) are those that frequently dog the genre regardless of who’s in it, what’s happening or who’s pulling the strings behind the camera. So pleasantly surprising is the first two-thirds of John Wick, that you rather end up hoping for something more from the finale. Nevertheless, the slick efficiency of this movie is really rather infectious. And if it is imperfect, then maybe, just maybe those imperfections will be ironed out in the inevitable sequel. We all know that’s unlikely. Diminishing returns and all. Still, for a good portion of the time John Wick feels a little bit like lightning in a bottle. Here’s hoping the stream of imitators that will surely follow understand exactly what it is that makes this film tick.