Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick

Review by Joseph Anthony

A former hit man goes into retirement to live a normal life, but comes out of it to avenge an evil act committed by the Russian mob. In the process he runs through countless hitmen to make his way to his ultimate target. This is the summary I wrote just three weeks ago after viewing THE EQUALIZER. The same exact summary works for JOHN WICK, though it’s a totally different film.

Keanu Reeves stars in the title role. We meet John just after his wife has passed. He is grieving in his swanky mansion, and while driving beautiful sport cars. One night there is a knock on the door – a woman delivering a puppy. Before his wife died, she planned to send him a companion to help him deal with his loneliness.

Later, a young Russian man spots John in one of his cars and offers to buy it. John declines. That night the man, Iosef, and his friends break into John’s home, kill his dog and steal his car. That’s the motivation. John vows to track down Iosef “for taking away his chance to grieve.”

John Wick isn’t just a devastated family man, but perhaps the most feared hitman in the world. Those who know him best call him ‘the boogeyman.’ Not because he is the bad guy, but because he kills the bad guys. Killing this guy’s dog was a really, really bad idea.

To make things interesting Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), happens to be John’s former employer. Viggo knows that his son stands little chance against the boogeyman. In efforts to protect his son, Viggo throws everything he can in John’s way including the old hitman Marcus, played by the great Willem Dafoe. But even Viggo knows his effort will make little difference.

All hell breaks lose.

JOHN WICK is heavy on the style, but with enough substance to keep you interested. Throughout the film an underground crime world is revealed – it’s a culture of assassins who use a hotel as a home base. There are strict rules in this world, though we’re never in the hotel long enough to really understand the rules. But even if brief, the premise of the hotel hangout is loads of fun.

What WICK does best is not take itself too seriously. So many ‘shoot em’ up’ films don’t take time to relieve the tension, but this one balances the serious with the fun nicely. Many films in this genre tend to use overbearing music (WICK is guilty of this) and in your face violence with no relief. WICK never makes that second mistake. Humor is consistent and the violence won’t make your stomach turn.

The movie also toys with larger themes, such as fate. Are we destined to come back to who we really are, even if we desperately want change? But in the end, JOHN WICK knows its purpose is to entertain, and never keeps us waiting through philosophical debate for more than a few moments.

Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have both had a full career as stuntmen in more than 80 films. In their first film, they have crafted a slick, action-packed film noir. Their experience serves them in the best ways. The emphasis is always the movement of the action during fight sequences and not the violence or blood.  

The real victory in JOHN WICK is the return of Keanu Reeves. Best known as Neo from THE MATRIX series, Reeves has worked on and off for the last 10 years with minimal success (CONSTANTINE, A SCANNER DARKLY, THE LAKE HOUSE). While WICK isn’t a masterpiece, or even great for that matter, it serves his skills as an actor perfectly. Often Reeves runs into trouble when given too much dialogue or emotion to display. This is most woefully displayed in DRACULA (1992), when Reeves was forced not only to have lengthy and emotional dialogue, but an English accent on top of that. The character of John Wick is emotionally cold and distant with not too much to say, and he thrives here.

WICK doesn’t succeed because of original ideas or gripping dialogue. It succeeds because it knows what it is, a movie just looking to kick some butt. Just keep up with the punches. Ultimately, the box office will decide if JOHN WICK is a one and done character for Reeves or if this could possibly be a franchise; either way, it’s nice to see Keanu back. 3 out of 4 stars

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