John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is at rock bottom. His beautiful wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) has succumbed to a terminal illness and the only thing he has left is an adorable puppy named Daisy, that his wife arranged to be delivered to him days after she'd slipped away. When a young punk Iosef (Alfie Allen) sees John's beautiful '69 Mustang and decides that he wants to acquire it and gets a negative response, he and his cronies break in, steal the car and kill the dog. What they don't know is that John Wick was once the literal bogeyman of the New York underworld; a rare assassin that got out. In The Usual Suspects David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) asks Verbal (Kevin Spacey) why he didn't take a shot at the mysterious underworld figure Keyser Söze. Verbal replies "How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?" The careless thugs in John Wick beat the devil up and kill his dog and leave him alive to unleash hell.
Writer Derek Kolstad creates an intricate criminal underworld that provides the backdrop to a very simple story of personal vengeance. There's a great deal of ambiguity about the rules of engagement in this subterranean society, their strange gold coin currency and litany of unspoken customs and courtesy are the tapestry that makes the world vastly more rich. Kolstad's script too leaves the specific detail of John Wick's past to be learnt in the other performers conveying how they feel about the slight that's been done to him. John Leguizamo's Aureilo, a 'chop shop' owner genuinely gives us the first taste into the menace of Wick and he's just effortlessly charming telling and smacking some sense into Iosef (Allen) as he's trying to show him what a profound fuck up has been made.
Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski strike a great balance between illustrating the huge task that John Wick has ahead of him dismantling this criminal empire, and holding tight to the closed quarter combat. The film feels like it's occurring in a parallel universe version of New York City. It's spaces are in a state of constant dusk or in darkness, where natural light is strangled out and replaced with neon reflections from sirens, strobes and stylish bars.
Keanu Reeves, aka Dorian Gray, may not look a day over thirty but the actor has recently celebrated his 50th birthday. Watching him in a physically demanding action role at this age is a real treat because unlike the Liam Neeson's and Denzel Washington's mature aged action films Reeves still has the muscle memory of the years of Neo (in the Matrix trilogy) to draw upon. He's also so committed to demonstrating the posture of a trained marksmen. Even in the midst of a chaotic night club gun battles, he's got this steady reinforced poses to ensure maximum accuracy. Yet unlike some of the contemporary revenge thrillers such as Taken and The Equalizer the titular character is nowhere near impervious to physical harm. Wick is shot, sliced and beaten and it is only his experience, wily improvisation and sheer savage will that allows him to overcome the organised crime force. Wick has a lot more in common with The Raid's force of nature Rama than Taken's Bryan Mills or The Equalizer's Robert McCall. Reeves' laconic and characteristic muted emotional range is absolutely perfect for John Wick's assassin. They're both extremely comfortable with apathy.
The casting of the supporting roles of John Wick needs to be commended. Willem Dafoe's Marcus that juggles mentor figure and potential predator compliments Wick terse communication in understanding exchanges. Michael Nyqvist's crime lord Viggo Tarasov doesn't underestimate the significance of the threat that's posed by Wick and whips his crew into a frenzy of preparedness. Adrianne Palicki guests as a fellow assassin Ms. Perkins that bends the codified rules of the trade for monetary gain. The whole time you're looking at her (currently) black hair and piercing blue eyes and wishing that it wasn't David E. Kelly that attempted to get her into the Wonder Woman garb. Alfie Allen must really have mixed feelings about being type cast as a slimy, pathetic, entitled shitbag, but he does everything you need him to as Iosef. Ian McShane's Winston is the premiere person of the mysterious underworld and watching his sophistication and zen calm across from John Wick conjures that same awesome of the dynamic between Seth Bullock (Tim Olyphant) and Al Swearengen in Deadwood, once they'd become allies.
John Wick is far better than revenge films of similar ilk have conditioned us to expect. A vivid unique world, great casting, hardcore action and a hero that you empathise with and root for that isn't impervious to harm. Keanu Reeves met John Wick at the perfect moment of his career.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Leitch and Chad Stahelski
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Bridget Regan,
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.