Most action movies are about putting the myth into the man, crafting a story and an iconic hero from action set pieces that in recent years has only come up with a short list of truly great action heroes. The best action stars are the ones that we can believe could dismantle just about anyone if given the opportunity. James Bond, Jason Bourne, and perhaps most recently Liam Neeson as whomever he plays, all come to mind.
“John Wick” puts the man into the myth, casting Keanu Reeves as a brilliantly blank slate completely convincing as a man capable of all the fear and badassedry we’ve come to expect of our cold-blooded killers. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s film starts by building up John Wick as that man capable of doing anything, of mowing down anyone who gets into his way, and then they deliver with a no frills, no nonsense action movie. It’s pure iconography and myth making to go along with the action. It’s a film that risks being all buildup and no payoff were it not for the elegant, minimalist style Stahelski and Leitch bring to every moment, but because they’ve done away with the more frivolous elements of standard action fare, it feels closer to all payoff.
When we meet John Wick, a man who almost always must be referred to by both syllables of his full name, he’s just lost his wife to an illness. Now he lives in an opulent, empty, sleek and modern house all alone until his wife leaves him a small puppy as a parting gift to keep him company after her death. He seems to have no job and no hobbies but can be seen performing insane donuts and burnouts with his vintage, pristine, 1969 Mustang. At a gas station, some Russian toughs ask him how much he wants to sell it for, and Wick, in Russian, lets them know it’s not for sale.
Later the Russians break into his house, steal his car and kill his new puppy, but leave him alive. Not a good idea. Until this point we don’t even know John’s full name, but his thieves soon do. A Russian mob king pin named Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) learns his son Iosef (Alfie Allen) was behind the attack when an associate informs him bluntly, “He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.”
Viggo tells Iosef of the old Russian fairy tale made to scare children, The Boogeyman. He even has a quiet little nursery rhyme. “He’s the one we sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman”. As a fearsome assassin, Wick earned his freedom by completing one of Viggo’s impossible tasks and subsequently building their empire. Iosef’s actions violated their deal, and now John Wick won’t stop until everyone is dead.
As Viggo strikes fear into his clueless son’s head, we see Wick pounding away at his garage floor with a sledgehammer, literally digging up his past. Reeves’s work, complete with so much darkly, unbridled rage in this moment, has in just a few minutes earned this vaulted presence before even shooting a bullet. This is his best role since “The Matrix”. He’s found his voice by minimizing it as an actor, allowing his actions to do the talking.
Wick as a character follows suit. He never kills with style, just simplicity and efficiency. When he catches a pleading victim spitting hate and four-letter words as he’s about to die, Wick doesn’t even stop for words before putting a bullet between his eyes. He finishes the job. This allows him to be brutal, but also stealthy, and Stahelski and Leitch echo this in an early raid on Wick’s house and Wick’s assault on a mob hotel and nightclub. This is hardly a calm action movie, but we’re never treated to a barrage of bullets, noise and testosterone either. Arguably Wick’s coolest kill comes when he punches a guy, reloads his gun and fires all before the guy can even catch his breath. Stahelsky and Leitch are directors who know how to make a long take count, and they earn Wick’s reputation as a result.
And yet for a bare bones plot, “John Wick” has a whole array of layered rules and principles to go along with its mob world mentality. Fellow killers all know Wick’s past, and they trade gold bullions for exclusive entry into select hideouts, each with its own set of rules and codes to live by.
There’s some serious world building at play here, and John Wick is fortunately a strong enough character that we dearly need a sequel.
3 1/2 stars