John Wick, and the theater's website described it as "Hit man comes out of retirement after mobsters kill his dog." I thought 'Man, there is no way that's good. There is no way I'm going to see it.' Then I heard the basically universal positive reviews, and I do like Keanu Reeves. Yeah, I watched it. Yeah, point John Wick. It's excellent.
John Wick (Reeves) is alone. After a battle with an unidentified illness, John's wife (Bridget Moynahan) passes away, leaving John wracked with grief and not knowing what to do next with his life. It's not long after her death though that John receives a present from her, something she set up before her death to be delivered. It's a puppy, one he bonds with instantly...until one night his home is raided by Russian mobsters who take his classic Ford Mustang and kill the dog. Well, they picked the wrong person to mess with. They don't know it, but John is a retired hit man, and not just any hired gun. He was the Best. John has focus again, and he intends to exact revenge on the gangsters who came after him. Their front man? Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of the gangster (Michael Nyqvist) who John used to work for. Nothing is gonna stop John so let the bullets fly.
So, yeah, that's pie on my face. I thought it sounded pretty dumb and looked kinda generic, but I'll admit when I'm wrong. I'M WRONG. I loved this movie. It comes from directors Chad Stahelski (formerly Reeves' stunt double) and uncredited David Leitch, and you know what? It's a bullet-riddled, bone-snapping, blood-splattered glorious mess. That's the beauty of it. There's no fat on the meat here. It's all choice. This...is...an...action...movie. Even John's wife dying is handled in quick but effective montages that last about 2 minutes. Then, it's back to the SHOOTING. That's the entire movie. Cool characters doing cool things with guns and an alarming and ever-increasing body count. You've gotta gives props when they're due. Stahelski, Leitch and Reeves set out to do a bare-bones shoot 'em up movie and succeeded across the board.
You'd never know it by looking at him, but Keanu Reeves is 51 years old. Seriously!!! The star of Bill and Ted, Speed, even The Matrix series, has grown up, but he's lost none of his edge. I thought this was one of his best parts in years, if not ever. Channeling anyone and everyone from Lee Marvin to Clint Eastwood to Steve McQueen, Reeves embraces all that is badass here. His John Wick is a legend, a killing machine with seemingly no equal who walked away from the business when he met his future wife. The name sends chills up the backs of those who hear it because they know what it means to cross this brutally efficient killer. Oh, and the physical look is there too. Reeves' long hair, coiffed beard, immaculate black suits, he looks cool. Throw in a classic 1969 Ford Mustang, and yep, you've got one uber-cool anti-hero in the spotlight.
The story itself is nothing too crazy. If anything, it's pretty basic, pissed off individual looking for revenge against the mob (of some sort). It manages to be entertaining throughout, paying tribute to countless movies before it while still claiming its own spot in the revenge genre. For starters, Reeves' John is channeling Lee Marvin in Point Blank or Alain Delon in any Jean-Pierre Melville caper. Stoic, almost silent and surgical in his job. As for the action and gunplay, that's obvious. That's a twist and new look on the style John Woo brought to the table (without the slow motion and doves). The gunplay is brutal, quick, hard-hitting and gone in a flash. The editing is aggressive and quick but never to the point where you can't see things. As well, the killer hell bent on revenge is another Woo touch. Kudos in general though here. A tribute film that claims its own status in the genre and does it well.
'Wick' creates its own world amidst all the bloody chaos, and that adds something. It has its own world. My favorite? The Continental Hotel in NYC caters exclusively to hit men and hired killers with owner Ian McShane and know-all desk attendant Lance Reddick. There are rules here that all must abide by, a code of sorts...until the payday offered is too lucrative to pass up. Among all our participants, a gold coin has quite the pull with Wick carrying a ton of them. Where do they come from? It goes unexplained but my guess; payment for jobs, and there's only so many out there. With a movie that looked like it would be pretty dumb, it's cool to see stylish touches like that sprinkled throughout a fast-moving story.
The cast across the board is excellent. Reeves leads the way, and Nyqvist is a gem as the Russian mobster caught in the middle. It'd be easy to ham it up, but he just goes with it, an intimidating mobster who finds himself in over his head. Allen is good as the weasel-like Iosef, a villain you can't wait to see get his comeuppance. Willem Dafoe is excellent as Marcus because...well, because he's Willem Dafoe. He's an assassin, the last of the old guard, an old friend of John's who gets involved whether he wants to or not. Dean Winters (Mayhem in TV commercials) plays Avi, Nyqvist's maligned right-hand man while Adrianne Palicki is Perkins, a killer with $ for eyes. Also look for John Leguizamo in a too-short performance as a chop shop owner, Moynahan appearing briefly as John's wife, and that McShane guy who is a welcome addition to any movie.
I won't delve into the action too much other than this. It's a gem. There is something straightforward, simple and primal about the shootouts here, Reeves' Wick navigating his way through small armies of rival gunmen. An assault on his home is a gem with a dozen killers trying to get him as is a shootout in a crowded nightclub with strobes all over and the music cranking. Stahelski clearly picked up a ton in his years as a stunt double, and it shows. The movie is packed to the guts with ridiculously stylized action sequences that don't overstay their welcome. A complete surprise, and one I was glad I was wrong about. I loved this movie. Definitely worth checking out.
John Wick (2014): *** 1/2 /****