Review: John Wick

johnwick “It’s not what you did, son, that angers me so. It’s who you did it to.”

John Wick is the leanest, meanest action movie to come around in a decade, and delivers the kind of cinematic delight that it is not to be missed. Keanu Reeves provides the title performance in this revenge-driven thriller, and nearly every frame of the film is gritty, visceral, and violent; exactly what action movie fans have been missing. Look, lesson one, all movie villains everywhere: do not fuck with a man’s dog. Certainly don’t break into his house, assault him, and murder his new puppy right in front of him, before stealing his car. Especially when the man is grieving the loss of his wife to illness and the puppy was a final gift from her, a means of providing the man comfort during the most difficult time of his life. And REALLY think twice about it when the man you’re assaulting is an unstoppable killer; one with the kind of suddenly available free time he would need to murder you, and your entire family.

The man in question is John Wick, a retired mob assassin who possesses the kind of operational skills Liam Neeson wishes he had. In hushed tones, the Russians call him “The Boogeyman,” and describe him as the man you call when you want to kill the ACTUAL boogeyman.  He got out of the game on certain terms, and when those terms are violated by theft and assault, no one will stand in the way of his revenge.

What follows this delightful setup is an introduction to a secret society of criminals in which all business transactions are paid for in stamped gold coins, and the rules of conduct are followed to the letter or swift retribution follows. The movie quickly becomes a non-stop parade of awesome actors chewing up the scenery, with notable moments from Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo as cogs in the society’s machinery. Smaller roles are filled out by equally awesome faces that bring a smile when they pop up (Lance Reddick from Fringe / The Wire! Daniel Bernhardt from Bloodsport parts 2-9! The Allstate Insurance guy!) They all serve to either help John Wick on his path or stand in the way and get chewed up in a hail of gunfire. Everyone involved is clearly having a great time with the film, and former stuntmen-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski make full use of the performances.

Keanu’s Wick is really the most understated character in the movie. Dressed all in black and with maybe 150 lines in the whole film, Reeves speaks mostly with his fists and his firearms. When he does speak his words are delivered with silent menace and unmistakable rage, and when he finally erupts with angry words from the heart it’s a cathartic release for the actor and the audience. Reeves is tremendous in the role and claims another character performance as iconic as Neo in The Matrix.

Action-wise, the movie sticks to realism both in gunplay and martial arts scenes. Reeves clearly trained hard with the guns in question, and nothing is faked on film. Scenes play out in long takes and Keanu’s reload-and-fire skills are on full display. I love the hard-hitting, Jason Bourne-style fighting that’s come to favor on screen as of late, and the directors have improved and refined it here. Punches, kicks and gunshots are delivered with palpable force and violence, causing breaks, blood and brain matter to erupt with regularity. The only misstep is an underwhelming final battle with Michael Nyqvist’s main bad guy, who can keep up with Keanu in chewing up scenery but isn’t so active in a fist fight. The film ends with a whimper instead of the bang it so desperately deserved.

Besides the final ten minutes, and both an underwhelming performance and character arc in Adrianne Palicki’s female assassin, John Wick is 101 minutes of elegant, ass-kicking entertainment.  Don’t be surprised if it gets a sequel or, at the very least, another character’s installment set in the rich world created here.

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