Revenge is a dish best served with super-cool action style

review by Thom Yee

Images courtesy of Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, Entertainment One Films, and Warner Bros. Pictures

Images courtesy of Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, Entertainment One Films, and Warner Bros. Pictures

What if somebody snuck into your home… killed your wife and kids? You wouldn’t be okay with it and you wouldn’t adjust to it. You wouldn’t want to see the killer brought to justice, you’d want to kill them with your bare hands. Brutally, slowly, dramatically, maybe carried out over the course of days as you kept the killer just this side of death, begging you to just let him die. You’d want revenge. It wouldn’t be good or right or fair. But it would feel so. F*cking. Good.

That’s basically John Wick. Only replace the word “wife” with “dog” and the word “kids” with “stole your car”.

For a number of reasons, I was fairly certain that I was never going to see John Wick. I’m at an age where I can directly remember movies like Speed and Johnny Mnemonic, and I can also directly remember never wanting to see those movies. I’ve never liked Keanu Reeves, never thought he was worthy of the space he occupies in the cultural landscape (even when that position is informed more from derision than commendation), and even from a young age, it was frighteningly obvious what a terrible actor Keanu Reeves was. I think at his best, watching Keanu is like watching a Nic Cage who, unlike the real Nic Cage, doesn’t know how to turn off his insane Nic Cage-ness when the scene calls for it. Plus he’s a boring version of Nic Cage.

And that’s exactly the same kind of acting I heard as Keanu’s John Wick defiantly yells, “People keep asking if I’m back. Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” It’s an odd movie where the most forceful and recognizable signature line includes the words “I’m thinking,” and while that line alone was far from enough to convince me against John Wick (even as it enters the pantheon of weird lines Keanu said alongside “definitely” and “vaya con dios” and “the name’s Johnny Utah”), there was also nothing about it that looked convincingly any better than your average action movie.

But thats also basically the same thing I said about The Matrix.

So… you’re young… mean… Russian. Your father’s the head of a crime family. You’re basically invulnerable. So who could blame you if you steal some guy’s vintage ’69 Mustang and kill his dog after he calls you a b*tch? It’s not like the chop shop your father owns would throw you out when you want the VIN number changed or your father himself would openly slap you in front of his henchman. You’re young, mean, Russian… invincible… and it was just one man’s car, one man’s dog. It was just one man. It was… John Wick? Oh. Oh sh*t. Oh sh*t, John Wick?  Oh sh*t, John Wick is back.


A dog to kill for.

In terms of spirit, everything you need to know about John Wick is held in that last paragraph. Make no mistake, John Wick is an absolute cartoon of an action movie, both in technical choreography and story. Caught halfway between the relatively grounded notion of honour among thieves and balls-out, lunatic action, John Wick somehow manages to be relatable even as it shows us a world that’s far from existence and nowhere near anywhere we’ll ever be.

Which isn’t to say it’s good. It takes a very particular type of person to really get anything out of it, and I have no idea why the movie’s been certified as fresh as it has been.

The world of John Wick is a mix of guns, gold, night clubs, and muscle cars, painting a picture of crime so organized that cabals, companies, and morals govern a system of assassins that live near the top of society and at the highest levels of discretion. It’s overly complex to the point of obvious comedy, and you first start to see that there’s something very unhinged about the whole thing when the police visit Wick’s home shortly after the movie’s first shoot out, fully acknowledging and then ignoring the massacre that’s just occurred, and leaving Wick to the rest of his evening, because John Wick. In a different movie, that moment might be one of acknowledged defeat, the police fully aware of the role they play in the overall pecking order, but in John Wick it’s just the way things are. Certain things are best left alone, some people are untouchable, and no one thinks it should be otherwise.

"Be glad that John Wick isn't into flaying people alive."

“Be glad that John Wick, unlike some people in this room, doesn’t believe in flaying people alive.”

Wick, a former assassin whose wife recently died of cancer, returns to this world seeking revenge against Ioseff (played by Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, who’s built an almost unparalled career playing people we love to see tortured), who stole Wick’s car and killed the dog that was the last living symbol of hope Wick had left of his wife. Leaving the crime-free home and life he’d built for himself behind, Wick borrows a crime car from a Aureilo’s crime chop shop, checks into the Continental, a crime hotel, and visits Winston, seeming arbiter of all things crime at the Red Circle, the crime night club. There’s a rich level of world-building in John Wick, catering almost exclusively to assassination, where everybody knows what everybody does, everything’s paid in coins of gold bullion, and codes exist to govern where and when people can be killed.

It’s all more than a little bit cynical, representative of the sort of hyper reality that specialist-oriented movies sometimes indulge in, whether the skill is athletic, intellectual, or musical, only in the world of John Wick, there’s an open acknowledgement of this hyper reality’s obvious hilarity, where the action is more stylish than visceral and the consequences are played both for laughs and lethality. In many ways, John Wick is the antithesis of back-to-basics actioners like Jack Reacher, itself a protagonist-name-titled attempt at establishing an enduring franchise in a movie-going landscape less and less sure of what it’s looking for in its action movies. John Wick kills and kills and kills in scenes choreographed like a fine ballet, each sequence punctuated with the fire of a bullet, his endeavours outwardly rewarded with a shower of American muscle, from ’69 Mustang to ’70 Chevelle SS to 2011 Charger, even as each kill is inwardly acknowledged as another mark on the path to hell.

It’s all pretty hilarious.

Sad-Beard Keanu is sad.

Sad-Beard Keanu is sad.

While I’m, at best, indifferent towards Keanu Reeves, I also can’t dismiss his presence in the movie and the virtual certainty that John Wick would have meant significantly less to a significant portion of its audience were the role awarded to almost any other actor. Relying on equal parts awkward charm, nostalgic yearning, and pure, ironic stupidity, John Wick will probably at least be an on-demand hit, with a patchwork collection of appeals nearly as frayed and messy as Reeves’ beard.

Michael Nyqvist, further affirming his role as the new Rade Šerbedžija (i.e., that Russian, mob-boss-type who’s in almost everything), puts in strong work as our primary antagonist, even if he sometimes comes off as more interested in further spreading the legend of the unstoppable John Wick than he is in trying to survive Wick’s wrath. Between the two, it’s also almost impossible to ignore how much better Nyqvist’s beard is.

Now that's a beard.

Now that’s beard.

In fact, as much as John Wick relies on Keanu for its initial audience draw, it’s the near-pitch perfect casting that helps the movie land every little thing it’s going for, whether it’s Lance Reddick’s hotel manager, Ian McShane’s Winston, Adrienne Palicki’s rival assassin Ms. Perkins, John Lequizamo’s Aureilo, or David Patrick Kelly’s Charlie, professional cleaner at seemingly every bloody massacre. The only real weak link is Willem Dafoe’s Marcus, assassin and old friend/confidante of John Wick’s, whose presence seems entirely designed to move the plot forward at at a slow point in the story.  Dafoe is his usual monstrously ineffable self, but he’s undone in an unconvincing way that mostly seems possible because the movie is called John Wick and not Marcus, John Wick’s Equally Unstoppable Friend.

That’s not really a spoiler.

Pretty much everyone dies in the movie.

Keanu Reeves is back, back to action, back to “I am an FBI agent”, back to “I know Kung Fu”, and everything and all that entails. As a stylish action piece, as a reflection of times past, and maybe even as a meta commentary, John Wick works better than it should, its characters completely engaging, utterly committed to the corrupt world they’ve built, and fully aware of the fate they’ve damned themselves to. But while the logical consistency of this world lies plain for all to see, it’s also a world where no real pathos exists to teach us anything we don’t already know. It’s not good or right or fair. It’s actually pretty pointless.

John Wick final score: 7.5

On the Edge

  • I’ve never actually seen Point Break.
  • Mustangs, Chevelles, Chargers; it would’ve been nice to see at least one Camaro.

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