John Wick is not quite great, but much of it is almost perfect, and it's so damned close to greatness, it makes me want to explode. Just like Keanu's head there.
Directed by Chad Stahleski and David Leitch
Written by Derek Kolstad
With Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Bridget Moynahan (Helen Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Ian McShane (Winston), Lance Reddick (Charon), John Leguizamo (Aureilo), and Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins)
Spoiler alert: mild
John Wick is efficiency itself. In terms of a streamlined action experience, it's possibly the most frictionless object to pass through theaters since The Raid. As such, it struck a tremendous chord with those exhausted by other action franchises and would-be franchises, bloated with circumstance, exposition, endless runtimes, interfilm continuity, and—perhaps too often—sausage-fingered attempts at thematic resonance. By 2014, this list had expanded to include "basically all other populist films, even the ones I loved." (That list includes, especially, The Raid's very own sequel.) Further, in terms of American street-level action cinema, it is one of the few that's offered a return to highly-stylized, highly-choreographed super-action, and a respite from the cheap, fake chaos of shaky-cam and quick-cut editing.
In other words, Wick is a blow against the Nolanification of cinema in general, and the Bournification of action cinema particularly. Thus it's very easy to see why there was such a groundswell of affection, manifesting as truly volcanic hype, for Wick's simpler pleasures. Few movies could have lived up to that kind of acclaim. Wick is not one of them.
That's the bad news. The good news is that John Wick is still all kinds of awesome, maybe eight or nine pounds of awesome in a ten pound bag—still pretty awesome—albeit arranged in a lumpy stack within that bag, so that it sometimes doesn't make very good emotional, aesthetic, or (particularly) narrative sense. This isn't to say that Wick is illogical—only one moment in the film's exercise in high action struck me as genuinely insensible, and even then it's far more plausible that I blinked and missed the part that explains how John made those cars explode. No, Wick simply arranges its largely modular set-pieces into a chronological order that seems blithe and incorrect, as if the filmmakers didn't know exactly what they had on their hands. Which perhaps they didn't, since it is their feature directorial debut. Taken as a deflowering, it's more successful than it has any right to be, even despite the directors' years of training.
I am doing my very, very best to ignore the fact that co-director Chad Stahleski was the second unit director who captured some of the worst action in cinematic history, in exactly the style I decry above, in 2012's partial-birth abortion of our era's most financially-impressive franchise, The Hunger Games. I do not get you people.
We begin with the timeworn trick of starting a film with a scene from its third act—our hero is bleeding out on the pavement, watching old home movies on his smartphone as he dies. "What are you doing, John?" are the first words in the film, uttered by his wife, whom we soon learn is no longer part of John's story. Begin again, then: days after his wife lost her battle to a deadly illness, John receives her parting gift, the cutest beagle pup you're ever likely to see. It's easy to see that this dog is John's last connection to the life he'd built. Sadly, because this is not predominantly a heartrending drama starring Keanu Reeves—not once past that emotionally brutal backstory montage, anyway—the beagle is not long for this world either.
A chance encounter with those Russian gangsters so ubiquitous in American cinema these days leads to a hotheaded young gunsel hatching a plan to steal John's most cherry '69 Mustang, for the kicks. In the midst of the home invasion to follow, John is beaten, and survives. His beagle is not so lucky.
As it turns out, no one is lucky in John Wick. Iosef, the foolish car thief and dog murderer, is flummoxed when he encounters only hostility from his criminal compatriots, because they know what he does not (and what, in practice, we already do): John Wick is the deadliest assassin in the world, and he's just been pushed out of retirement. Wick treats John's infamy as a bone-dry running gag that never gets old—even the cops know who John is, and in the film's most overt and most hilarious joke, they wisely elect to stay the hell out of his way. Of course, Iosef himself is not just a hotheaded young gunsel, either. He's the big boss' only son.
Thus can John Wick be boiled down to one single clause: an irresistible force meets an immovable object. We pay our money to observe the results. Those results are uniformly entertaining. (We will leave aside the, ah... idiosyncratic choices, regarding the subtitles for the spoken Russian.)
But the worst thing about John Wick, counterintuitively, is that it is too good for too long. The first action scene reintroduces the world to Chad Stahleski and David Leitch's slightly-grittier brand of tense, balletic gun-fu. I've always said we were too dismissive of that hyperstylized form back in the mid-2000s, and now it's back, hopefully representing a final nail in the coffins of the Greengrasses of the world. Wick offers close-quarters combat that's half martial arts, half gunplay, all dance, and it's lovely—but Stahleski and Leitch know the real key to any great fight scene is how intimately it can be tied to an interesting environment surrounding the bodies and bullets in motion. Production designer Dan Leigh's contributions are pivotal to Wick's finest moments, and two of his destructible sets are amazing examples of the designer's art. A look at his resume reveals some good work, but nothing that would suggest he had this in him; nonetheless, Leigh's efforts are far more accomplished than a movie about fighting Russian gangsters would ordinarily deserve.
Now, I don't recall any actual dual-wielded pistols, but there's a lot of John Woo in this movie, and even more Wachowski: if you didn't already suspect simply by Reeves' involvement that Wick's stunt coordinators-turned-directors helped define the action style of the Matrix Trilogy a decade and a half ago, you would have guessed at this truth by the time the credits rolled. But let's linger on that Woo, instead: when John and a faceless assailant struggle over a knife, I was vividly reminded of the curiously-maligned M:I 2; of course, when John plunges the knife into his enemy and earns the hard R, I was glad to have watched it at home, because I'd have been a terrible theater patron to have sat next to in that moment, with my hooting, hollering, and all my other carryings-on. This scene sets a bar that only a miracle would let the film clear.
Against all odds, the miracle happens—Stahleski and Leitch actually manage to top themselves—but they do so with something like half of the movie still to go. Thus the film crests in the middle, whereupon the wave inexorably rolls back. Wick makes its high water mark during its signature action scene, a shootout in a nightclub that is only a few impressionistic sound choices away from being perfect—the club music suffers hard stops with cuts between locations, breaking the flow it's already established, when a less strictly realist approach would have permitted some really transcendent action. Cinematographer John Sela was already fully onboard to create perhaps the single best color-driven action phantasmogoria of 2014, handily besting the climactic scene of The Guest.
Meanwhile, they could not love that one butt-rock song about killing strangers more unless they played it four times.
Of course, The Guest also had the sense to end with its most enrapturing scene. Everything subsequent in Wick is a let-down, viscerally-speaking. The final battle barely earns its narrative right to exist; the story continues due solely to some very questionable decisions made by the villains, after the emotional climax has already passed. It might be good enough for many other movies, but not here. Especially not when it results in a physical confrontation between an action titan and what really ought to amount to another body in the stack. The details of this struggle seem to be driven by the need to give John somebody—anybody—to fight one-on-one, rather than any sensible narrative process.
Foreshadowing is for the weak, I guess.
And that's something of a shame, since John has a whole universe of potential opponents on his level. What I didn't mention in my synopsis was the grander society of assassins that John once lived in, and has now returned to. Centered around a hotel operated by and for killers-for-hire, the assassins' rigid code of conduct borders upon straight-up urban fantasy (a little uneasily, yes—but not uncoolly, for super-murder shall always be cool). For many, the assassins' society represents one of Wick's most tantalizing aspects, and I could be compelled to agree, but better still is how Wick builds its world—or, rather, doesn't. While one is always loath to applaud the obviously correct, the fact that virtually every other film opts instead for overexplanation that manifests half the time as something akin to auto-fanfictionalization means I ought not hold my praise. To Wick's absolutely enormous credit, the story of Wick's broader world is told almost entirely through visuals, and Wick is confident enough in the audience's intelligence that it sees no need to stop the movie to put on a Powerpoint presentation. However, this caginess cuts both ways—while some of John's fellow super-assassins have their minor parts to play in the story, their impact is not felt in proportion to the great expectations their presence—and their stunt-casting—inevitably raise. (Willem Dafoe is the most mistreated.) Happily, this is no doubt a flaw that shall be rectified fully in the already-announced sequel.
And what of the man of the hour himself?
In the 1990s, Keanu Reeves did as much as anyone to define that decade, both in its action films and elsewhere (Bogus Journey remains an all-time super-classic). But with every passing year, the danger grew greater than Reeves might find himself forgotten, or possibly worse, subsumed into the ball of tired called The Expendables franchise. But, thankfully, that was not his fate. You may have turned your back on Keanu. This was a mistake. It's incredibly tempting to say that the titular character is the role Reeves was born to play, partly because this lets us forget about Klaatu, which is for the best (though Reeves is, by several light years, very much the only good thing in The Day the Earth Stood Still's woebegotten remake). Whether time will vindicate John as Reeves' greatest role or not, he is the raging storm inside the center of his movie, casting off the remnants of his humanity to reveal a great, gaping void. Reeves renders the affectless action monster that is the only thing life will ever let John be, but with enough strange charisma and notes of humanity that you can't help but want to watch what he does next. I assume everyone else has already made the Sad Keanu: The Motion Picture jokes, but there's no sense at all in arguing that Reeves was not the man for the part. They keep saying that he's back. Yeah, I'm thinking he's back.
And it has nothing to do with the film, strictly speaking, but is that the best poster of 2014, or what?