John Wick (2014)

This looks... weirdly familiar.
This looks… weirdly familiar.

“Don’t set him off”

Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane and Wilhem Dafoe

In this touching drama, a recently widowed man (Reeves) receives a final gift from his beloved wife; a puppy to nurture and to help bring him through his dark night of the soul. Then a Russian mob punk named Iosef (Allen) decides to steal the man’s car and kills the dog during the robbery. He goes to a mob chop shop, but the owner won’t deal with the car, explaining to Iosef’s father, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist) that the car belongs to John Wick.

Wick, a retired assassin who once went by the sobriquet Baba Yaga, unearths a hidden cache of weapons and embarks on what the kids these days are calling a rip-roaring rollercoaster rampage of revenge, first taking out a hit team sent to eliminate him, then pursuing the vendetta through mob nightclubs and safehouses.

Viggo takes out a $2 million hit, even calling in old school assassin Marcus (Dafoe), an old friend of John’s, and Ms Perkins (Palicki), another old acquaintance. Between hits, John takes shelter in the Continental Hotel, a luxury establishment for discerning assassin, in which all ‘business’ is forbidden. As John gets tired and Viggo gets desperate the action gets more and more brutal, leading to a climactic fist fight on a rain-soaked dock.

What’s wrong with it?

Keanu Reeves, who infamously knows ‘where the bahstahd sleeps’ is… actually, never mind.

The directors, both more at home as stunt designers and performers direct as if they had, you know, a basic working knowledge of… Okay, skip that one.

Ms Perkins is a little bit of a disappointment. Overall her character is fine. Okay, she’s the only substantial female character whose role is anything other than as John Wick’s dead wife or puppy and she’s not just an antagonist, but clearly lacks a level of classy bitchitude that the other (male) assassin hold to, but I can get behind the idea of an outsider bucking the system. Unfortunately, they either didn’t want to have Reeves kill a woman, or ran out of time and money for another fight scene, and so handed her death off to Winston (McShane), the owner of the Continental. Nothing wrong with that in itself, as it reinforces the idea of the ‘heavy penalties’ for doing business in the holiest of holies, but the set-up is odd, with Ms ‘fuck management’ Perkins ditching an ambush on John to respond to a summons from the Continental’s manager (Lance Reddick) as if she were still a good little assassin.

Baba Yaga is translated as ‘bogeyman’, but Baba Yaga is specifically a child-eating ogress (and ‘baba’ is a Russian diminutive equivalent to ‘granny’.)

What’s right with it?

The truth is that Reeves’ particular deadpan delivery has rarely been more apt. I mean, remember the last time he was running around a Byzantine demimonde with a shotgun?

Uh-huh.

And it’s not just a better Reeves, it’s a better demimonde.  Constantine frittered away its sources to deliver a pale and confused secret world. Despite the lack of actual supernatural gribblies, John Wick‘s beautifully realised underworld of sleazy gang lords and genteel super-assassins, driven by a private currency of gold coins in which a mysterious Brit plays host to the creme de la crime in a swish hotel where hollow point wound care most definitely is on the menu and Dottie Underwood is minding the bar, is as alien and amoral as anything in Constantine.

The use of lighting and filters to transition from the ‘ordinary’ world at the beginning of the film into the bluetinged neo-noir of the underworld is very well done.

The action scenes are exceptional, with the actors clearly doing a shit tonne of prep and stunt work, which may explain how Reeves keeps so goddamn spry. Wick’s fighting style is also pretty unique, combining judo and ‘centre axis relock’ close quarters gunfighting to create something which blends a hard, practical look with the exploded dynamism required for screen action.

This film may have even nicer suits than Kingsman.

And an unhealthy fascination with the American muscle car.
And an unhealthy fascination with the American muscle car.

The dialogue is rarely deep, but rolls along on a dry wave of sardonic wit.

“How good is your laundry?”
“I’m sorry to say, no-one is that good.”

Also, I really respect that in the course of his revenge, the recently widowed Wick somehow neglects to sleep with a stripper, and finishes the film by adopting a new dog instead of falling into a new relationship. We’ve come a long way since the 1990s.

How bad is it really?

John Wick is an imperfect film. I think it fails all the inclusivity tests, desperately underuses Clark ‘Lester Freamon’ Peters, and skirts a weird line between its depicition of a glamourised hyper real world of violence and simply glamourising violence. For all that, it’s a cracking action thriller with a gorgeously realised neo-noir aesthetic, and part of the latest cinematic Renaissance for perennial comeback kid Reeves.

Best bit (if such there is)?

After the first grand action sequence, in which he takes out a twelve-man Russian hit squad who attack his home, a cop named Jimmy comes to John’s door:

Jimmy: Evening, John.
John: Evening, Jimmy. Noise complaint?
Jimmy: Noise complaint.
Jimmy looks past John to an entrance hall littered with bodies.
Jimmy: You… uh…”working” again?
John: No, just sorting some stuff out.
Jimmy: Oh well, I’ll leave you be then. Good night, John.
John: Good night, Jimmy.

I particularly like  the sense that not only does Jimmy not want to deal with this, he’s happy to assume that it doesn’t affect the honest citizens he protects; as if it’s an internal mob matter he can keep out of.

What’s up with…?

  • Poor bloody Alfie Allen? He really does pick roles with a poor taste in enemies.
  • Lovejoy? Why is the owner of New York’s hotel for classy bitch murderers British? Is it just that murder is slightly classier with a British accent?

Ratings

Production values – The film is beautifully made, with soft-spoken dialogue and long moments of calm punctuated by extended action scenes and the throaty testosterone growl of American muscle cars. A focus on practical effects (judging by the footage of filming the final fight, they appear to have actually shot in the rain rather than creating their own weather) and tailoring for actor and location pays off hard in the action scenes. There are a couple of blood splatters that look a bit comedic, but that’s nitpicking. 2
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is mostly pretty superficial, but superficial and cool. The players give it their restrained all, and Reeves in particular has rarely been better, even managing to ramp it up appropriately when called on to break out of the cool, calm head space which the Continental clientele typically maintain. 6
Plot and execution – I’m torn on this one. The stated criteria for full points in this category is ‘just there as an excuse for the violence and the shagging’, and the only real way that the narrative of this film doesn’t fit that description is that there is no shagging. Multiple characters even hang a lampshade on this, protesting that ‘it’s just a fucking dog’. And yet… I can’t find it in me to write it off. It’s not a dense narrative, but it has an arc, albeit a pretty bleak one, with Wick ultimately accepting that having once been a part of this world, his normal life could only ever be a holiday. 14
Randomness – For the most part, the film works its particular concepts pretty straight, but it swerves off a bit with the fate of Ms Perkins, which in retrospect felt like something they really wanted to include but never one hundred percent fixed on the how. 5
Waste of potential – This is another of those films that is about a billion times better than it has any right to be. There are a few things it could have done better vis a vis inclusion, but that’s an issue that barely registers if the film doesn’t pass a certain standard. 4

Overall 31%

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