Keanu Reeves is often faulted for his limitations, and though he may not in his element doing Shakespeare, there is much more to him than the guy who says “whoa.” To be fair some actors are best served working within a wavelength, but suggesting he’s often playing the same guy is absurd. All you have to do is compare Bill and Ted’s Theodore Logan to John Wick to see that he’s capable of range. Reeves has evolved into one of cinema’s oddest, yet most consistent action heroes (he’s been making them for over twenty years now), and with John Wick he stars in one of the most satisfying action movies in recent memory. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are the directors, and they capably make the leap from stunt coordinators to filmmakers in this delightfully entertaining shoot ‘em up.
Reeves plays the titular Wick, who begins the film having suffered the loss of his wife (Bridget Moynahan). Her final gift to him is a puppy, which starts to bring him back into the world. But he finds no peace as Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) wants Wick’s sweet muscle car, and later comes to Wick’s house to steal it. Iosef kills the puppy, which brings out the remorseless killer in John Unfortunately what Iosef didn’t know is that Wick worked for his Russian gangster father Viggo (Michael Nyquist) as a hitman, and was so good he was nicknamed the boogeyman. But Viggo isn’t ready to part with his son, so he sends killers to take out Wick, even though he knows that eventually John will come knocking.
After suiting up and getting through the first round of faceless assassins, Wick heads to a hotel for his kind where Winston (Ian McShane) offers safe haven and neutral ground to the killer elite. There he meets Mrs. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), who decides to break those rules in the hopes of netting four million. Wick usually works alone, but besides a little help from Winston, he had a friend in Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a sniper who takes the contract on John but is no hurry to close it. Wick keeps getting closer to Iosef, and the Tarasov family is going to have to pay, the question is if John cares enough about his life to keep going after his mission is done.
There are certain action clichés that can’t help but get my blood going. One of the best is “you don’t know who so and so is? Well let me reel off a number of his accomplishments!” That happens early on in John Wick and you can tell the filmmakers get why you need this scene, why you want this scene, as so many of the pleasures of a good genre film involve doing a version of a familiar trope or sequence. You want to have a fetishistic “suiting up for battle” sequence, and you want the filmmakers to understand the video game structure of escalating threats for the main character, with each new action set piece filled with a different technique and slightly harder threats to the main character. These sequences should be familiar but different, in that way that most of these elements are featured in films as diverse as this, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Raid and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. They keep coming up because they work, and because we love them.
But more than a playful sense of genre filmmaking, what holds the film together is Keanu. Reeves plays the wounded killer with his typical stillness (though he does have a heated moment or two, that’s for sure), and it’s been a while since I was so engaged with him as a performer. It’s fascinating to look at him here as his blankness reveals multitudes – it reminds of the work Alain Delon did for Jean Pierre Melville in films like Le Samourai.
Though Reeves has had a number of recent vehicles (like 47 Ronin and The Man of Tai Chi), of late he’s been more meme than man, so it’s good to have him back, especially in a film that knows how to build a world and show action. Reeves’ Wick has a killing style where – when fighting multiple combatants – he holds on to one foe while killing another and then taking out the person he’s subdued. That coupled with his different gun posture creates a heightened appreciation for his technique as the filmmakers aren’t just ripping off John Woo. When called on for hand to hand combat, the film never feels like it’s just going for familiar kung-fu beats, so the fights are of the sort that lead to vocal exclamations – it’s near impossible to watch without hooting after an energetic kill and groaning in sympathy for a good bone breaking.
The film also knows not to wear out its welcome, which is a pleasant surprise after something like The Equalizer, a film that’s fun but runs about thirty minutes too long. There’s nothing transcendent to John Wick, but with Hollywood more interested in four quadrant comic book and spectacle movies and bespotted by bloat, most of the low budget violent fare seems made by the French (or that is to say Luc Besson’s people) these days, so it’s nice to have something that feels both fresh but also aware of genre.
Lions Gate’s Blu-ray also offers a DVD and digital copy, while the film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Atmos. For those looking for a slightly quieter version, there’s also a track mastered in 2.0 for evening watching. Nice. The transfer of the film is excellent across the board, with the Atmos track as loud and dynamic as you’d expect. The film comes with a commentary track by directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (contractual obligation credited the film to only one of them), and they’re happy to talk about everything, though it’s mostly limited to the production and its challenges (they do mention certain elements that came out in post, and their appreciation of the material). There are also a number of featurettes, though none are all that special: “Don’t F*#% with John Wick” (15 min.) shows the training and the thought process that went into the stunt work, and it’s followed by “Calling in the Cavalry” (12 min.), which is a more standard making of that highlights the directors and the cast. Then comes “Destiny of a Collective” (6 min.), which highlights the directors and their history as stunt coordinators, and it’s followed by “The Assassin’s Code” (5 min.) which focuses on the film’s hitman underworld. “The Red Circle” (6 min.) sheds light on the nightclub set piece, while “N.Y.C. Noir” (6 min.) talks about New York City as a character in the film. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.