John Wick is slick. Everything from the cinematography, to the action, to Keanu Reeves’ thick locks is smoother than James Bond ordering a martini. While it’s far from an original story, this revenge action/thriller showcases star Keanu Reeves’ best performance in years and a promising directorial debut from long-time stuntman Chad Stahelski.
The premise is very basic. Titular hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns from retirement to enact bloody vengeance on a Russian mob headed by former friend Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). The basic plot is as old as action films themselves, and unfortunately Wick adds nothing new to history on that front. There is a clear motivation for Wick’s actions that the audience can get behind, in the form of Russian mobster Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) killing Wick’s dog. But after that opener, anyone who is even mildly interested in action films could guess the final act.
One of the films greatest strengths is the central performance by Reeves. This is by far his best action role since Neo in The Matrix 15 years ago. Wick is described by Tarasov as “the guy you send to kill the f*cking boogeyman” and Reeves acts so driven and capable that you would believe it. Wick is a man of few words but many (violent) actions, and Reeves’ determined expression and precision portrays him more as a force of nature than a person. However the most impressive part of the character and Reeves’ performance is that, contrary to Wick’s terrifying might, he’s still vulnerable. Wick takes multiple stab and bullet wounds, while still maintaining the feeling that he is still dominant. It’s a very difficult balance that Keanu Reeves and the script pull off effortlessly.
However, the supporting cast isn’t quite as stellar as the titular character. Michael Nyqvist is perfectly functional as the Russian villain, being cheesy enough that he’s enjoyable to watch but nothing beyond that. His character’s son (Alfie Allen) is easy to despise and root against but also fails to make an impression. Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki are both solid as fellow hitmen, and while Palicki has one brutal but brief action sequence with Wick, Dafoe is extremely underutilised. An old friend of Wick’s, Defoe’s character could have been completely cut from the script without it affecting the overarching narrative at all. Considering how sinister and creepy Dafoe has been in other roles like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Spiderman, it’s disappointing that he wasn’t given a bigger role to show off his talent.
Although director Chad Stahelski may have struggled with the originality of the basic plot, he knows how to direct action. It should come as no surprise considering he’s credited with stunts in over 70 films before he turned to directing. The choreography and shots in John Wick are stylish, brutal and imaginative. Opting away from the shaky cam of many millennial action flicks, Stahelski favours longer, clear takes so the audience can take in every gunshot and breaking bone with relish. The choreography utilises gun-fu pulled straight from classic John Woo action films, and makes the action sequences lean, fast and just as brutally efficient as its protagonist.
The cinematography is equally as elegant. For a first-time director, Stahelski is very confident with the unique style of the film. The use of slow motion, close ups, rhythmic takes and shadows mixed with a dark colour pallet all contribute to the movie having a very kinetic and distinct feel. Even the small touch of making subtitles that are actually integrated into the shots contributes to this. One specific scene in a nightclub uses the various shifting colours of its environment to full effect, while also still implementing shadows, and is very stylish and stimulating to watch.
In conclusion, while John Wick may be far from original, its lead performance and style make it one of the slickest action films in recent years. A spectacular return to form from Keanu Reeves and a very promising directorial debut from a man very familiar with the action genre make it an easy recommendation. To anyone sick of the bland style and frustrating shaky cam of many contemporary action films, this is your remedy.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended