Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Theaters: JOHN WICK (2014)

(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.

John Wick left this world five years earlier when he married Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who turned a violent, ruthless psychopath into a good, upstanding man. When Helen dies from cancer, John is lost and heartbroken but finds a way to get through his grief when a package arrives, its delivery arranged by Helen in the event of her death: a beagle puppy, she explains, "because you need someone to love." John and the puppy, named Daisy, become inseparable companions. When John is filling up at a gas station, his 1969 Mustang is spotted by a sniveling punk (GAME OF THRONES' Alfie Allen), who wants to buy it. "She's not for sale," John says. Undeterred, the kid and some Russian thugs show up at John's house in the middle of the night, hit him over the head, kill Daisy, and take the Mustang. The sniveling punk is Iosef Tasarov, the only son of powerful Russian mob boss Viggo Tasarov (Michael Nyqvist, from the original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy). Viggo is furious with his spoiled brat of a son. "It was just a car and a dog!" Iosef explains, to which his enraged father replies "It's not what you did...it's who you did it to." John Wick used to work for Viggo, and Viggo agreed to grant John his freedom from the organization if he could complete an impossible task, figuring there was no way he could do it and John would remain in his employ. John pulled off the job ("The bodies we buried that day built the foundation of what we have now!" Viggo tells the useless Iosef), and has lived in quiet anonymity since.

Viggo knows John all too well. John Wick is known in assassin circles as "Baba Yaga," or "The Boogeyman." Viggo knows he's a relentless, unstoppable killing machine and he's coming to avenge his dog. But very much the way John has to do what he has to do, so must Viggo in his obligation to protect his son, no matter how worthless he may be. Viggo sends a 12-man crew to wipe out John and when all 12 are killed, Viggo puts out an open contract on John for $2 million as the top players in the assassination game converge on the luxurious Continental (played externally by the Flatiron Building-like 1 Wall Street Court), the hotel of choice for the city's most elite hired killers, to have a go at John Wick, including his old friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), who spends most of the film acting as John's guardian angel, taking out competitors to ensure that he has his own shot at the $2 million. From then on, it's one brilliantly choreographed set piece after another as John is pursued through the hotel by the likes of scheming femme fatale Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) and through a garishly-decorated multi-level club by Tasarov bodyguards led by Kirill (Daniel Bernhardt), in a sequence that takes its rightful place beside NIGHTHAWKS and COLLATERAL in the pantheon of classic nightclub pursuits.

Considering Stahelski and Leitch's background in stunt coordination (Stahelski has been Reeves' longtime stunt double, doing heavy lifting for him in 1991's POINT BREAK and 1999's THE MATRIX, and elsewhere, Stahelski served as the Eric Draven double in reshoots for 1994's THE CROW after star Brandon Lee's tragic on-set death), there's an intense focus on making JOHN WICK's action sequences hard-hitting and actor-involved. The directors make great effort to shoot scenes in ways that show the actors as much as possible, be it a fight scene, a shootout (this has some of the best since the heyday of John Woo and the "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.

JOHN WICK is one of the best films of the year though, yes, if you wanted to nitpick, you could question the plot hole of how it's possible that John and Iosef don't know each other. But, more importantly, something occurred to me while watching it: this isn't the kind of movie audiences are used to seeing on the big screen. In between their big Hollywood stunt gigs, Stahelski and Leitch have logged a lot of time working on low-budget actioners like the ones Kolstad usually scripts (he also wrote the 2012 Steve Austin vehicle THE PACKAGE), and that's the angle from which they approach JOHN WICK. You don't see action movies like this in theaters--you seem them on VOD and on Netflix. That's where the bold and innovative actioners are being done by the likes of Isaac Florentine (the UNDISPUTED sequels, 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.

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