(US - 2014)
Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters, Daniel Bernhardt, David Patrick Kelly, Omer Barnea, Toby Moore, Bridget Regan, Kevin Nash, Randall Duk Kim, Keith Jardine. (R, 102 mins)
When retired hit man John Wick, pulled back into the game when his former, violent life intrudes on his present, peaceful one, ferociously declares "Yeah, I'm thinkin' I'm back!" it could also double as a boldly confident statement by Keanu Reeves, the star of JOHN WICK. It was 2008--an eternity by today's standards of fame and pop culture relevance--when Reeves last had anything resembling a hit movie (the forgettable remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL). Since then, he's done some small indies like HENRY'S CRIME (2011) and the unwatchable GENERATION UM... (2013), and directed and co-starred as the villain in the surprisingly entertaining but little-seen martial-arts saga MAN OF TAI CHI (2013), but most of his time was wasted on the disastrous mega-budget bomb 47 RONIN (2013). So yes, with the giddily entertaining JOHN WICK, 50-year-old Reeves is justified in thinkin' he's back. On the surface, it's little more than a standard-issue revenge saga of a guy single-handedly taking on the Russian mob, but in the hands of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two veteran stuntmen making their directing debut (they worked as a team, though some DGA snafu only permitted Stahelski to be credited), JOHN WICK is a furiously-paced, dazzlingly-stylish and thoroughly inventive journey into a cinematic world that looks like an alternate-universe NYC, a sort-of reality-grounded SIN CITY minus the graphic novel conventions and various noir grotesqueries. It's the kind of city where hit men and mob assassins have a culture and a social circle all their own, with hotels, nightclubs, and even a gold-coin currency exclusive just to them. They have the cordial, surface respect of competitors in a business, each one willing to rub the other out if the price is right.
COLLATERAL in the pantheon of classic nightclub pursuits.
"gun-kata" histrionics of Kurt Wimmer's 2002 cult classic EQUILIBRIUM), or a car chase. Most of the blood is CGI, but when they use CGI, it's done in a way that doesn't draw attention to the artifice, which is another example of the way JOHN WICK goes about its mission statement in a way that's refreshingly lacking in self-conscious snark. It would've been very easy to turn this into a ridiculous, CGI-heavy shitshow, but Stahelski and Leitch are to be commended for taking on this project with a clear vision that's seen all the way through. Yes, it is a ridiculous and over-the-top movie, but by not making the characters and their world a cartoon, they convey a brutal effectiveness throughout in addition to some precise and efficient storytelling. The directors and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (whose undistinguished past credits include the DTV actioner ONE IN THE CHAMBER) lay out the exposition in the most no-bullshit fashion imaginable. The entire story is set up and off and running in about 15 minutes, and we've learned everything we need to know about John Wick, his past life, his present life, and what the stakes are for Viggo and his empire.
NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR) and John Hyams (UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING) and flying completely under the mainstream radar. And with that, the magic of JOHN WICK is clear: it's a high-end DTV actioner that managed to sneak out of the Redbox gutter and somehow con its way into a national theatrical release. Sub in Scott Adkins for Reeves, Rade Serbedzija for Nyqvist, Dolph Lundgren for Dafoe, and I guess Daniel Bernhardt for, uh, Bernhardt, and you've got essentially the same movie minus, of course, the added enjoyment of seeing Reeves in a career-rejuvenating comeback. With its non-stop and coherently-shot action, imaginative setting and colorful production design, sly and sometime subtle wit (during a phone call, Nyqvist's beautifully underplayed delivery of a simple "...oh," when he realizes he's dealing with John Wick, earns quiet chuckles that soon erupt into a wave of loud laughter throughout the theater), and showy supporting turns by vets like Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, and the great David Patrick Kelly as Charlie, an affable cleaner ("Dinner reservation for 12," John tells him over the phone when he needs the remains of Viggo's dozen assassins removed from his home), JOHN WICK gets everything right. It's the kind of inspired, immersive, and wholly entertaining experience that restores your faith in big-screen action movies and proves that it's sometimes still possible to be surprised.