Come this Tuesday, America has a duty, and that duty is to rent John Wick, to watch John Wick, and—inevitably—to love John Wick.
The best action movie of 2014, if not the past decade, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s Keanu Reeves vehicle grossed $43 million at the domestic box-office after it opened this past October. It was a respectable sum given its modest $20 million production budget, though still far less than a film of its unrivaled excellence deserved. In terms of aesthetic panache, combat choreography, hardboiled plotting, and sleek swagger, John Wick is a work of peerless badassery, custom-built for anyone who likes crime stories, film noir, martial arts beat-‘em-ups, or the gun-fu works of John Woo. In a modern mainstream marketplace that has little use for old-school R-rated carnage, it’s exactly the type of film genre fans have been craving—and when it hits Blu-ray and DVD this week, it’ll be reborn as 2015’s first must-watch movie.
As befitting so much great pulp, John Wick’s premise is simple. While still grieving the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan), John Wick (Reeves) receives a beyond-the-grave delivery from her: an adorable puppy named Daisy, with whom he quickly bonds. No sooner has the pooch helped kickstart John’s tormented soul, however, then John is assaulted in his home by a crew of masked thugs led by Russian-American Iosef (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), who earlier that day had been rebuffed in his efforts to buy John’s classic ’69 Mustang at a gas station, and has now returned to steal the car.
Iosef and his men leave John beaten and blooded, and his adorable dog dead—a crime that soon comes back to haunt Iosef, once he learns from his Russian crime-boss father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) that John Wick is a former assassin. And not just any old assassin, but the assassin who helped Viggo create his empire in the first place. And furthermore, an assassin so legendarily fearsome that his nickname is “Baba Yaga”—not because he was believed to be the boogeyman, but because, as Viggo recounts, “he was the guy you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman.”
Making their directorial debuts after years working as stunt and fight choreographers on films like The Matrix and The Hunger Games, Stahelski and Leitch (the latter officially uncredited by the DGA) establish this set-up with an absolute surplus of style. Fleeting flashback montages of John and his wife silently articulate his grief, with joyful moments that are glimpsed in an instant giving way to two long, sustained shots of John standing over his wife as she dies in a hospital bed—a structure that emphasizes how John’s misery is far fresher, and more consuming, than his former happiness. That sort of shrewd formalism extends throughout John Wick, which has a visual design (also courtesy of cinematographer Jonathan Sela) that’s intrinsically connected to its story, which soon finds John digging up his old guns, donning his trademark jet-black suit, and embarking on a mission of bloody revenge against Iosef and all those who would stand in his way.
That quest is one rooted in contrasts, the most obvious being John’s departure from his new, quietly domestic life back to his old, criminal underworld existence. It’s a transition that takes him from his bright-white modern-architecture home to a sensual red assassins’ lounge, a murky strobe-lit nightclub, and other assorted dank piers and grungy alleyways.
Stahelski and Leitch juxtapose the look of their various locales to convey John’s descent into his dark past, and they suggest the way his two lives are coming to a crossroads via imagery steeped in both horizontal and vertical lines (be it aerial shots of grid-like Manhattan, or lens flares that cut across the screen), and then in diagonal lines that break up their otherwise symmetrical visual compositions. Throughout, Stahelski and Leitch employ expert framing and spacing—as well as frequent cross-cutting between scenes of quiet and those of chaos—to wordlessly emphasize John’s agonized plight, and the underlying schisms that plague him and his undertaking.
Such beautiful visual clarity extends to their action centerpieces, which balance graceful fluidity and ultra-violent gunplay and hand-to-hand combat in a way that would make even the maestro of pistols-and-punches mayhem, John Woo (The Killer, Hard Boiled), giddy with excitement. John Wick is awash in fierce shootouts and fisticuffs, with Reeves dispatching hordes of adversaries with complicated combinations of torso and head shots, stabbings, and—in one particularly nasty moment—neck-snapping blows to the head.
Refusing to partake in disjointed Michael Bay-inspired rapid-fire editorial techniques that create an artificial sense of “action,” Stahelski and Leitch use their widescreen frame and judicious, impactful edits to provide a lucid, visceral view of Reeves’s action. That bedlam is highlighted by a climactic bit in which Reeves backs over a thug with his car and, as the adversary rolls over the moving vehicle, blasts him through the roof, as well as an earlier nightclub assault that finds John, amidst rapid-fire anarchy, hastily reloading in front of a stunned adversary before blowing him away.
If John Wick is the best looking action film in recent memory, it’s also bolstered by a phenomenal cast of actors who, be they in parts big or small, manage to craft three-dimensional characters out of stock archetypes. As a kingpin whose ruthlessness is matched by a hilarious streak of exasperation, Nyqvist is at once menacing and amusing, especially in a climactic car chase in which he giggles with impressed delight at John’s bulldog determination.
He’s accompanied by supporting players who do much with little, including Willem Dafoe as John’s loyal father-figure/mentor, Adrianne Palicki as a rival killer, John Leguizamo as a chop-shop owner, David Patrick Kelley as a body-removing “cleaner,” Ian McShane as a suave cohort from John’s past, and Lance Reddick as the desk clerk at The Continental, an exclusive hotel for hired guns whose long, storied history—like so much about John, and his intertwined relationship with these various sordid figures—is tantalizingly hinted at, and yet never fully explained, by a script from Derek Kolstad that prizes economy and mystery in equal measure.
John Wick presents a convincing clandestine underworld that’s built upon an economy powered by gold coins, and rife with establishments predicated on strict rules and codes of conduct, all while remaining firmly focused on the agony and anger of its protagonist. To that end, the film benefits from its headliner, who captures the brooding wrath and soulful heart of John with a modicum of dialogue and a mound of physical intensity.
As a resurrected angel of death hell-bent on vengeance, Reeves’s John recalls Lee Marvin’s killer from Point Blank and Charles Bronson’s vigilante from Death Wish, not to mention—thanks to the crucifix and praying-hands tattoos that adorn his body, his (figurative) revivification, and the persistent gash in his side—a more merciless version of God’s chosen son.
His gait assured, his moves swift and lethal, and his voice calm and collected even as it exudes righteous fury, Reeves proves a figure of immaculately poised rage and brutality, all designer-suit dapper and burning-eyes ferocious. He’s the no-nonsense, Christ-as-assassin antidote to our cartoony PG-13 superhero-spectacle era. This Tuesday, let us all hail him as our action cinema savior.