In honor of John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) being released last month in theaters, I decided to revisit the 2014 original John Wick. I had fond memories of my first viewing, but as with many things, its memory can be tainted upon second viewing. Luckily, this film only got better over time.
The film follows the titular character John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, in his grieving after his wife dies unexpectedly of an illness. He goes to her funeral and is visited by an old cryptic friend Marcus. Back at home, he gets a surprise delivery as a last gift from his wife – an adorable beagle puppy – because she wanted him to have something to love after she was gone. Then one day he goes to a gas station in a vintage mustang and a young man Iosef Tarasov (played by Alfie Allen who is known for his role as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) wants his car, but Wick refuses to sell and goes home. That night Iosef, the son of a powerful Russian mobster Viggo (played by Michael Nyqvist), breaks into his house with his buddies. He kicks the crap out of John Wick, and…KILLS HIS DOG, then steals his car. Iosef then learns that John Wick was the unbeatable hit man who used to work for his father. Known as “the guy you hire to kill the Boogey Man”, Iosef soon realizes that he messed with the wrong person. After being given an ‘impossible task’ to complete to get out of the business, Wick left his old life behind and swore he wouldn’t kill again. Now, John Wick has lost everything he loved and wants the head of Iosef. Viggo decides to protect his son at any cost.
What made John Wick different from every other vengeance action movie out there are its beautifully crafted action sequences and its ability to show and not tell. The film felt like a breath of fresh air in the genre, which was long overdue. It proved that you can make a straight forward action film that people will enjoy. With a budget of $20 million, it made $14.15 million its opening weekend, and grossed $43 million by January of 2015. And of course, it was so popular that they made a sequel.
Its directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are two career stuntmen and stunt coordinators with films under their belt like The Matrix, 300, Rambo, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and V for Vendetta. And it shows. The action sequences do not rely on shaky-cam and numerous quick cuts, which have become a staple of the genre in franchises such as Jason Bourne and Taken. In each sequence, the audience can see what is happening and can understand the layout of the space, where people are coming from, and how one kill leads to the next. It makes the scenes flow smoothly and comprehensible. It also helps that Keanu Reeves did all of his own stunts. This was something that the directors were adamant about, that the actors be able to do their own stunts. One thing I will say that there are a ridiculous amount of headshots in this movie, contributing to a total of 84 kills in the film, which at times feels reminiscent of a video game. However this does not feel too out of place due to the films slick production and general tone.
One thing that I really appreciate about John Wick was that I didn’t need to be told that John Wick was the deadliest assassin out there, I was shown. When Viggo confronts his son about what he did, his son doesn’t understand who Wick is and calls him a ‘nobody’. Then Viggo says “that nobody is John Wick” with such weight that you understand Wick’s reputation. Up until this point, we have no idea Wick was an assassin, then there is a cut to Wick uncovering his stash of guns. The directors also did an excellent job world-building. Once John Wick is out trying to take revenge on Iosef, he travels to The Continental Hotel, a hotel for assassins with a mysterious currency. And it’s something that the film doesn’t explain to you, it is meant to be accepted and adds to the mystery of the society. I don’t need to be told exactly what is happening and who people are, good storytellers and directors show you, not tell you.
Keanu Reeves was an excellent casting choice for this film. His stoic and calm demeanor lends itself well to the role. His subtlety adds gravitas to this character. And films like this rely on the actor to get the audience to empathize with an anti-hero type figure. It also helps that he has the perfect motivation – someone KILLED HIS DOG– so it doesn’t matter how many people he kills (not to mention he never kills innocents) because what they did is unforgivable. On the flip side, Alfie Allen plays Iosef so well, you can’t help but hate him.
This film was incredibly well done and gives the action genre a well-needed change. I look forward to watching the sequel, but if you haven’t seen this film it is available on Redbox or HBO and I highly recommend it.