Keanu Reeves is not exactly known for extraordinarily great performances in drama movies, yet with The Matrix in 1999 he delivered as Neo with most notably several iconic action scenes.
With John Wick it seems like Keanu Reeves is back to give action movies another shot. Yet, with a premise that focusses on a former hit man embarking on a quest to take revenge for his stolen car and dead dog, it feels rather cheesy and silly.
Anyway, is there still some Matrix-dynamic and coolness left in Keanu to make John Wick stand out? Or is it just a misfired attempt to get back into action movies?
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a mob hit man who upon falling in love with a woman would quit. 5 years later, his wife dies and to make sure he's not alone she arranges for a dog to be brought to him after her death. One day some punks break into his home and they want Wick's car so they beat him up and they kill the dog. Wick sets out to find them and learns the leader is the son of his former employer, Viggo. Viggo then sends some henchmen to take care of Wick but he's too good. He then sets out to find Viggo's son. Viggo puts a price on Wick's head.
Source: 20th Century Fox
A former hit man loses his wife to cancer and obtains a cute puppy dog from her posthumously as a last gift. When Russian gang mobsters break into his home, beat him to the ground, steal his car and kill his dog, John Wick once again pulls out his armory to get revenge....sounds really stupid on paper but thanks to very confident directing work and a precise sense for knowing what it wants to be, John Wick surprisingly enough actually works!
John Wick as a whole is thanks to its very simple premise an equally easy to get in story. With such a straightforward storyline that pretty much entirely focusses on John Wick hunting down Russian mobsters to get revenge on them, John Wick very much feels like a trip back to 1980s action movies with similarily simple premises like for example Stallone's "Over the Top" or Swayze's "Road House".
Yet while those movies had numerous aspects about them that made them partially very very cheesy affairs that you either love or dislike, John Wick might have a simple story but it's luckily for the most part anything but cheesy. John Wick therefore feels like an 80's action movie that got updated with a very striking and competent own style that is consistently present throughout the entire experience from the thrilling numerous action scenes up to the perfectly fitting score.
|No more sad Keanu. This is bad(ass) Keanu!|
What makes John Wick notably set itself apart from other hit-man-revenge-flicks is not only the general consistent style of the movie but also the fact that all of its action scenes have a much more visceral and to some extents even realistic feel to them that is missing in most other blockbuster action movies nowadays. Whereas movies like the sadly misguided Expendables 3 feature loads of guns being fired but without any shown bloody impact or fatal consequences to the victims,
John Wick instead fares differently: the movie's action scenes deliver a great mix of enough action-movie clichee sillyness (like John Wick walking through the front door to start a gunfight) with enough realistic aspects (like John Wick primarily performing headshots to kill the most efficient way possible).
The numerous action scenes in John Wick are choreographed so well to the point that they cover up very nicely that there isn't much in terms of twists and turns happening in the movie's storyline. It's a straightforward revenge quest affair with a predictable outcome, yet thanks to the flawless action, John Wick is an experience with little to no downtimes from start to finish.
|Gunfight in a church? Why not?|
Another nice aspect to John Wick is that instead of relying on a generic depiction of a criminal underground world, the movie nicely establishes an own surrounding that gives the movie much needed further personality to avoid making it feel like a redundant shooting-gallery.
Though of course the main attraction in John Wick still are without any doubt the great action scenes above everything else, it stil in many aspects gets obvious that John Wick hints at a much more complex and bigger underground world beneath the movie's visible surface with ideas like a secret hotel reserved for hit men and other professional criminals. In that sense, John Wick comes off as a great start for an own entire action movie franchise. It definitely offers enough potential for that.
Worth mentioning are also the nice subtle hints and tributes to Keanu Reeves' previous action movies like The Matrix. These come in form of iconic camera shots that decidedly mimic scenes from the Matrix like the lobby shootout scene or the appearance of stuntman/actor Daniel Bernhardt who played an Agent in The Matrix Reloaded.
|Stuntman Daniel Bernhardt starring as the walking Matrix tribute.|
What makes the character of John Wick avoid feeling bland and shallow is especially the first quarter of the movie which introduces us to John Wick's troubles in everyday life in which he constantly has to deal with the grief of his lost love. Instead of showing us boring love scenes as an introduction, the movie makes a good choice in directly putting us in John's life after his wife already died. Giving the necessary context via a mix of flashbacks and John Wick's daily routines in which he tries to distract himself from the sadness and negative thoughts. While some might find the introduction to John Wick and his situation a bit flat, the thing is that this introduction is kept more subtle than what Hollywood movies are used to. We don't really need to see numerous tedious flirting scenes between John and his wife to know how hard it is to lose someone you love. The movie obviously knows this and therefore directly puts us into the here and now - the aftermath of his wife's death.
What further makes the introduction work is that Keanu Reeves actually does a great job with his performance as a broken man. Throughout the entire introduction and set-up of the main story, he never really feels like an ice-cold killer but rather like an everyday guy who suddenly is left alone.
|Killing hundreds of people because of a stolen car and dead dog...seems legit.|
This of course takes a 180 degree turn when John Wick "explodes" and embarks on his revenge quest. This drastic shift from a man who wanted to leave his past criminal carreer behind to the former brutal hit man he once was is very well pulled off. Especially the creative action choreography showing John Wick extremely quickly and precisely killing bad guys with head shots and cool maneuvers seals the deal. And even though John Wick indeed seems like a hyper-professional one-man-army, he often enough happens to struggle with some stronger bad guys here and there making him still feel vulnerable enough to give the action a sense of necessary tension.
Looking at the side-characters which mostly consist out of antagonists, there is not that much to say about them. Antagonists like Russian mob boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and his idiot son Iosef (Alfie Allen) remain largely generic and shallow, though they boast enough personality and character to make them despicable enough to dislike and hate.
Other notable appearances come in the form of Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki as competing hit men set out to kill John Wick. Their apperances and performances are also respectable and enjoyable yet nothing too groundbreaking or game-changing enough to really make an impression. Especially considering Dafoe, the movie could've done a bit better in utilizing him more since his screentime appears to be quite limited in a way.
|Most side-characters remain generic, but they get the job done.|
Overall, John Wick shows that action movies don't necessarily need to be complex and deep to make for a fun and exciting experience.
With a very simple premise and straightforward revenge story spiced up with a large array of slick and very well choreographed action scenes, John Wick feels like an 80s action movie updated for today's modern audiences. Much like suprise action hits like "The Transporter", John Wick's blend of just enough emotional drama with plain fun action scenes that keep on coming and coming make the movie's entirety have as good as zero downtimes. And with a running time of 90min. John Wick nevertheless avoids becoming a Michael Bay action-overkill.
Sure, viewers that absolutely put a deep and complex message above plain fun through action scenes might have a more difficult time with John Wick (after all it's about a hit man going on a killing spree because of a stolen car and a dead dog), yet if Liam Neeson's Taken (2008), Jason Statham's Transporter (2002) or even Dredd (2012) are right up your alley, you will absolutely enjoy John Wick. It's simple, yet extremely confident in knowing exactly what it wants to be, making this absolute surprise action hit to some extent irresistible.
Final Verdict: 7 out of 10