Because so many directors are overwhelmingly lazy with how they capture action (i.e. shake the camera around because nothing is as thrilling as nausea), we’ve gained a greater appreciation for filmmakers who can deliver excitement cleanly and clearly. It’s an art and a science, and John Wick is an exercise at how to succeed at both. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski show they are masters of efficiency as the kills are stylish and direct. But technical proficiency doesn’t inherently lead to exhilaration, and while the technical craft of John Wick is undeniable, its half-hearted storytelling is supported not by strong characters or a deep narrative (the impetus for the protagonist would be comical in its simplicity if it wasn’t wholly depressing), but by an interesting world that’s far more intriguing than any of the people who inhabit it.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is mourning the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who left him a puppy as way of helping him cope with her loss. While at a gas station, Wick encounters Iosef (Alfie Allen), a Russian gangster who attempts to buy his car. Wick refuses, so Iosef and his goons break into Wick’s home, beat him up, steal the car, and kill the dog. Unfortunately for Iosef and every Russian mobster in the city, Wick is a retired hitman whose work was so prolific he was known as “the person you send to kill the Boogeyman”. Hell-bent on revenge, Wick returns to the criminal underworld and its unique set of rules as he seeks to snuff out Iosef, but must contend with both Russian thugs and professional hitmen hired by Iosef’s kingpin father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).
A hitman pulled in for one last job/out for revenge isn’t new territory by any stretch, and it would be almost funny how Leitch and Stahleski pull it off except they have no intention to being humorous because killing a dog is unforgivable. They could have just sent out John on a mission of revenge because the bad guys killed his wife, but killing a dog is even worse because it’s on par with killing a child. It is a defenseless, uncomplicated, undeniably adorable creature who exists only to provide love and affection. And if you kill it, then as an audience we will accept any and all repercussions visited upon the perpetrator. Wick has license to do whatever he wants to not only Iosef, but anyone who stands in the way of Wick getting to his target. Anyone who sides with a puppy murderer has to die horribly.
However, Wick doesn’t really relish his vengeance or really derive any emotion from his work. He takes no pleasure in killing, but instead goes through it mechanically. It’s second nature, and the equal and opposite reaction of killing a dog (for some reason, the “they stole his car” is also lumped in with the dog-killing, which is unnecessary; you don’t get to rampage because someone took your ’69 Mustang). His signature is being fast and precise. He’s just short of unstoppable, and because his life is never really in danger (he’s the hero, and John Wick isn’t about disrupting the B-movie action genre), we can just sit back and admire the technique.
The problem is that this cleanliness makes the movie feel safe. When you watch a sports game, do you sit back and admire the fundamentals, or do you wait for the home runs, the Hail Mary touchdowns, or the slam dunks? John Wick never pushes a single boundary, which is frustrating because it feels like both the directors and the characters are holding back. Leitch and Stahelski clearly have the skills to stage elaborate action, but I couldn’t tell you one memorable scene or kill. As for Wick, his reputation seems to stem from the fact that he can kill more Russians than Siberia rather than the flashiness of his methods. Viggo calls Wick the “Boogeyman” multiple times through the picture, but the Boogeyman is fearsome. Wick is merely efficent.
This appreciation of tidiness and order is put at a premium in John Wick, and watching those values integrated into the tone and setting makes the picture more rewarding. Wick is nowhere near one of Reeves’ more compelling characters, but he walks through a world of rules and codes. People don’t use gold coins instead of cash. Killers have an official hotel, The Continental, which provides a safe haven and unique services. John Wick didn’t simply leave a profession, he left a society, and it’s exciting to see him re-enter it, not to see his reaction, but so we can learn more about this finely constructed underworld.
John Wick isn’t necessarily hollow as Leitch and Stahelski clearly relish being a B-movie throwback, and their action choreography is impressive although at times it looks like they’re about to throw a combo-meter on the screen. The movie is constantly reminding us how stylish it is, and any sympathy for the character comes from Reeves’ puppy dog eyes and a murdered puppy dog. There’s nothing elaborate or grandiose when it comes to John Wick. It’s fast, stylish, and content to take the sure shot, and I’ll happily watch that over any director who’s firing blind.