John Wick review

The divisions between the good guys and the bad guys in John Wick are obvious and uncomplicated, and it’s very much by design. The film sets this up with some particularly economical plot mechanics in its opening scenes, at the same time being careful to ensure the audience will be able to sympathise with the title character, even though he’s about to spend the rest of the film killing lots and lots of people.

We’re shown that Wick, as played by Keanu Reeves, has recently lost his wife to a terminal illness. As he struggles to come to terms with his loss, mostly by looking moody and driving his ’69 Ford Mustang really fast, he receives a posthumous gift from his wife in the ludicrously cute form of a puppy named Daisy. His connection with this puppy seems to be giving Wick the reason he needs to go on.

That is until a group of Russian gangsters break into his house, beat him up, steal his car and kill Daisy. The gang leader Iosef, played by a snivelling Alfie Allen, is particularly loathsome.

When Wick wakes up, battered and bleeding, he finds the puppy lying next to him, dead. It’s all clinically calculated to make the audience feel for Wick, and to engender hatred for the gang, but despite the obviousness of the writing, it really does work. I actually found myself welling up while watching Reeves holding his slain puppy, willing him to carry out some sort of violent retribution.

This impressive, emotional filmmaking hooked me, in a way that few action movies ever do. I may enjoy the action in plenty of films, mostly in a way that has a lot to do with its construction, but I rarely ever feel that how the characters are behaving is anything close to being right.

While I’ll never believe that violence is the answer to anything, not in the real world or even in the artifice of stylised cinema such as this, I certainly found that John Wick‘s compelling, emotive opening very effectively manipulated my attentions away from the morality of his actions.

What follows the early set-up is a pretty standard revenge narrative, with Wick waging a one man crusade against Viggo, Iosef and a whole network of underworld gangsters. But the action that fills out this story is anything but ordinary, and the ‘hitman world’ that Wick returns to is far from normal.

Working from a screenplay by Derek Kolstad, directors Chad Stahelski & David Leitch – the latter is oddly not credited in the opening, but most certainly worked on the film as a co-director – have created a unique world for John Wick. This is a reality removed slightly from our own,  but not so far that it requires a great deal of exposition. In fact, John Wick is remarkably lean when it comes to the explanations, with Kolstad, Stahelski and Leitch instead leaving space for the audience to fill in the blanks.

We learn that Wick has a past as an extremely dangerous hitman, employed by none other than Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Viggo is skilled at freaking out his son out with tales of Wick’s potent lethality.

Their whole world seems to revolve around murder and death. The currency of this world is gold coins; a service for disposing of dead bodies involves making a call to make dinner reservations; and cops basically turn a blind eye to everything going on, which is wisely seeded early on, to allow maximum action with no concerns about why there aren’t any police interfering.

And most importantly, there is a hotel in the centre of New York that is exclusively for hitmen, and hitwomen – Adrianne Palicki gives a spirited performance as an assassin out to collect the bounty on Wick’s head. This hotel has its own set of rules, the most important of which seems to be for the guests to never carry out their business on the premises. It’s owned by the compassionate Winston (Ian McShane) and managed by the rather hilariously non-plussed Charon (Lance Reddick).

While this might be almost as silly as it sounds on paper, it’s not as convoluted as you may fear. The world of John Wick is actually very easy to understand, and also incredibly seductive, and it’s very easy to ignore most of the obvious silliness.

Though the dopiness does sometimes blend into the filmmaking a little too much, with some incredibly aggressive use of lighting gels and colour timing that make everything pop with the same enthusiastic overdrive. Even the subtitles appear in a mixture of fonts, locations and sizing, with colour and capitalisations to add emphasis where none was needed.

Where the eagerness to please really pays off is in the action sequences. Both Stahelski & Leitch have worked as stunt coordinators before, with Stahelski even doubling for Reeves on other films. They approach their action with inventiveness and an overwhelming sense of glee.

A lot of John Wick’s choreography is focused on a sort of ‘gun-fu’ that seems to have been influenced more by the hand to hand combat of Wing Chun ‘Sticky Hands’ techniques than by the ‘heroic bloodshed’ style of John Woo‘s eighties pictures. There’s one particularly surprising manoeuvre that they’ve given to Wick which had me squealing for joy just from its audacity.

Reeves has carved out a strange niche as something of an American martial arts star, albeit with very mixed results, and John Wick is probably the best use of his talents to date. He doesn’t have anything like the athletic abilities of a Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen or Jet Li, of course, but he’s more than capable of convincing when given well-choreographed action without too many overly ambitious moves.

The film’s stand out sequence sees Wick make his way through multiple layers of a club – named The Red Circle with transparent cine-literacy – and taking out foe after foe with precision and a great deal of skill. But also, and importantly, he rarely takes down his opponents in the same manner. There’s always a slight twist, an inventive method or even a gag to be found in the action.

Throughout every action sequence in the film, Stahelski & Leitch, working with cinematographer Jonathan Sela, are almost entirely committed to spatial coherence, with action flowing not just through eyelines but also the path of every bullet.

The sound design could perhaps deliver a little bit more of a punch at times, with the soundtrack often swallowing up the effects and denying the audience the exaggerated bang, crunch, thwack and crack they require to really feel the damage. Nonetheless, the action scenes are a joy to behold.

This is another fine action movie from skilled stunt coordinators turned directors, the latest in a fine tradition that stretches back many years. John Wick is far from a flawless victory, but it inhabits an absorbing, if rather silly world and, first and foremost, it’s an awful lot of fun.

John Wick is in UK cinemas from the 10th of April and available on DVD and Blu-ray in the US right now.