John Wick is a 2014 neo-noir action thriller film, directed by Chad Stahelski and starring Keanu Reeves as the titular character. Having lost his wife to an unknown illness, ex-hitman John Wick receives a beagle puppy named Daisy as a surprise parting gift from her so he does not have to grieve alone. After driving around with the puppy all day, he is followed home by a group of punks led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who break into his house, knock John unconscious, and kill Daisy before stealing his car. This act of cruelty brings John out of retirement, unleashing a torrent of vengeance upon the men that wronged him.
In many ways John Wick is a standard revenge film, there’s no real getting around that. The ground it treads upon has been traveled by the action genre countless times: hero loses someone, seeks revenge. Familiarity notwithstanding, this is a fantastic take on this type of story. With visceral, thoughtfully constructed action, straightforwardly effective characters, and a great sense of atmosphere, the film is an artful spectacle. It has an especially strong attention to detail, keeping track of just how many times John fires his gun, for instance, by frequently factoring in reloading and the loss of ammunition.
Particularly captivating is the film’s unassuming beginning, (with the exception of the cold open) which focuses on John’s grief. Going in blind the audience wouldn’t even know that he used to be a professional killer. He’s just a man who lost his wife, mutedly going through the motions of funerary proceedings and the haze of immense loss. We don’t see any glimpses of who John is as a person until Daisy comes into the picture, the puppy slowly allowing some humanity to shine through his stoic exterior.
He’s a typical “they don’t know who they’re messing with” type of action protagonist, but this is portrayed in a refreshing and intentionally humorous way. John says little about his own capabilities; his approach is matter-of-fact and dry. The way this movie goes about introducing his skills, which I enjoyed, was that his soon-to-be adversaries know how much death he’s going to unleash upon them.
This is where we meet Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the charismatic leader of the Russian mafia and father of Iosef. Viggo and other minor characters that make up his operation bring the most personality to the story. There’s no mistaking, John is the protagonist, but I liked the more unique way the film approached the conflict. There’s emphasis on the fact that this organization is trying to deal with an unstoppable force they know is coming, without the petty arrogance common to villainy (except for Iosef). They will try, but even Viggo himself is not confident of their success. Watching his exasperation at what they will face whilst doing so with stubborn determination was a joy to behold.
The film delivers on John as this unnatural force for death, presenting it extravagantly to get the audience buying into it, and then cleverly reminds us that he’s human. While watching someone lay waste to people responsible for killing a beagle puppy is very satisfying, it would have been disappointing had he been a truly unstoppable force. The Russian mob is still a formidable adversary to throw oneself against alone, which almost costs him more than once. His moments of weakness and defeat are well-placed, keeping the tension going and the action fresh.
The only real problem I had with the film is that Reeves’ performance is a little too stoic and wooden at times. I wouldn’t want him making snarky quips or being brash and boastful — he’s a grim character — I just wish there was a little extra something to his personality. His grief in the beginning is apparent enough and there is one particular moment of emoting that left a good impression, but other than that he performs a consistent tone of quiet rage.
If you’re interested in action movies, John Wick is one you shouldn’t miss. It’s elegantly simple, refining an otherwise clichéd premise in a compelling way. I highly recommend it.