A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31, 2014

 Rank: #10


2014, R, 101 mins.


Keanu Reeves as John Wick  /  Michael Nyqvist as Viggo Tarasov  /  Alfie Allen as Iosef Tarasov  /  Willem Dafoe as Marcus  /  Dean Winters as Avi  /  Adrianne Palicki as Ms. Perkins  /  Bridget Moynahan as Helen  /  John Leguizamo as Aureilo  /  Ian McShane as Winston  /  Lance Reddick as Charon

Directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski  /  Written by Derek Kolstad

I have all but given up on modern Hollywood action films in terms of their ability to infuse some much needed vitality and novelty back into the genre.  

Well, along comes the rough, rugged, frequently brutal, deliriously stylish, and intensely entertaining JOHN WICK to wake up the genre – and audience members, for that matter – out of apathy.  So many action films these days feel like bloated, paint-by-numbers affairs that often forget to be lean, mean, and innovative.  JOHN WICK kind of flips the bird at so many of the genre’s more annoying, been-there, done-that proclivities in crafting a revenge caper that fully embraces its luridness while simultaneously envisioning some of the most fiendishly inventive and unrelentingly thrilling stunt set pieces  that I’ve seen in many a moon.  That, and it successfully returns Keanu Reeves – at the ripe old age of 50 (FIFTY!) – back to his THE MATRIX/SPEED-era levels of kick-ass bravado. 

The overall plot for JOHN WICK is, to be kind of fair, ludicrous nonsense that could be easily summarized in a 140-character tweet with words to spare.  However, it essentially exists as a closeline, of sorts, for the film’s audaciously original action sequences.  The film runs at just over 90 minutes, which is a pitch perfectly correct running time considering the material, and JOHN WICK never wastes time on slavish exposition and values slick and swift plotting in ways few other films – action or not – don’t.  Here’s what you need to know: 

Keanu Reeves plays a retired hitman that loses his wife to cancer...and then Russian gangsters steal his 1969 Mustang and kill his new puppy...and he gets very pissed off.  

Bloody vengeance is plotted. “The End.” 



Okay, that’s longer than what a tweet would allow.  There’s a bit more to the plot than that, and the film is clever with relaying a considerable amount about its title character with judicious use of flashbacks and very little dialogue early on.  John Wick (Reeves) was a former assassin for the Russian mob that has decided to lay low, stay quiet, retire, and live the good life with his wife…until she dies far too young in life.  Her final deathbed wish to her husband, though, was to look after her gift to him…a puppy.  Trying to grieve as only he can, John takes the dog in and cares for it…but just as he’s acclimatizing himself to his new roommate he’s given a very nasty wake-up call when the son of a Russian mafia kingpin, Iosef (Alfie Allen) decides to steal John’s prized Mustang and, in the process, beats John nearly to death with some of his hired goons.  The poor puppy, alas, never makes it out alive, a plot development that immediately mocks one of the oldest clichés of the movies: you can never kill a cute pooch in a movie.  Like…never. 

Predictably, Iosef is an ignoramus.  He has no idea who John is or what his past entailed…that is until his deeply frustrated father Viggo (a truly fine Michael Nyqvist, from the original THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) discovers his son’s hellish act and matter-of-factly educates him on John’s past as a lethal killer.  Realizing that his kid is indeed an inept moron, Viggo goes immediately on the defensive – seeing as he knows that John will seek revenge ASAP – and puts out an expensive contract on his head, which does have a few takers in Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) and Marcus (Willem Dafoe), the latter whom has a personal history with John.  Despite all of the dangerous obstacles placed in John’s path, he resolutely stays focused and determined to track and find Iosef, which means eradicating countless members of Viggo’s squad in the process. 

JOHN WICK was technically directed by two men, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (granted, because of DGA rules, only Stahelski was granted soul credit). Both have extensive backgrounds as movie stunt performers, having worked with Reeves before on THE MATRIX TRILOGY (as well as a host of other action films), but what becomes immediately – and refreshingly – apparent right from the get-go is that these fist-time directors have absolutely none of the dreadful and inexcusable habits that so many action filmmakers (novice and veteran) have.  Working on a multitude of past action films, it’s easy to see how Leitch and Stahelski have witnessed the over reliance on CGI effects married to hyperactive and headache-inducing editing and shaky cam excesses to help “sell” the mayhem.  In JOHN WICK the pair understands how intricately rendered choreography is best served with a clean, precise, and easy-on-the-eyes visual sheen.  With the sumptuous cinematography by Jonathan Sela, the directors here let the action sell itself instead of relying on hooky and overused aesthetic flourishes.  They keep the camera...for the most part…still.  Considering the breakneck and breathtaking momentum of the carnage on screen, it's ultimately great to be able to actually make out what’s happening on screen. 

Did I say that Keanu Reeves is 50?  Let that simmer for a bit while watching this film.  The star has always radiated an agelessly handsome façade that always makes him appear astonishingly younger, not to mention that he has that ethereal level of boyish, no-nonsense charm that has helped him overcome his less than stellar range as an actor during his career.  Not since THE MATRIX has Reeves been so meticulous well cast as he is here: Sporting a scruffy beard, a perpetual poker face, a steely eyed stare, and a stoic stillness and calm (that is, of course, before he unleashes hell), John Wick emerges as one of the most cold, calculating, and ferociously empowered killing machines that I’ve ever seen in a film.  Derek Kolstad’s script thankfully doesn’t give John much dialogue, which perfectly pays homage to classic anti-hero archetypes like Mad Max and the Man With No Name as well as playing up to Reeve’s inherent strengths as an actor in terms of raw screen presence; he has simply not been this engaging and potent in a film role in long time. 

Amidst all of the ingeniously staged action sequences (the film displays macabre ingenuity in finding new and varied ways for John to kill his multiple adversaries with guns), JOHN WICK has moments of giddy hilarity as well, especially in one early moment featuring a cameo by John Leguizamo uttering a one-word deadpan response to Iosef - when the latter reveals what he has done to John - that delivers a well earned laugh.  There’s also ample dark comedy to be had from Lance Reddick, who plays an inordinately polite and upstanding hotel manager of an establishment that provides a safe zone, of sorts, for men like John and his kind who need, shall we say, special treatment that no other hotel offers.  Also, many scenes of Nyqvist’s mob boss reacting to the startling ineptitude of his grotesquely naïve son offers many laughs as well. 

Some will, no doubt, question my 4-star rating of JOHN WICK.  Hell, I question it myself.  All that matters is my response to the film, and as far as genre efforts go, JOHN WICK doesn't radically reinvent the wheel for action films as it does inject extensive new creative life into it.  It’s an uber stylish revenge thriller that never draws too much obtrusive attention to its style.  It delivers bone crushing, artery spewing, and pulse-pounding action relayed with impeccable visual cleanliness that allows these sequences to feel like immaculately timed and choreographed ballets of wanton savagery.  And, yes, at the heart of it all is Keanu Reeves at the absolute zenith of his cool Keanu-ness, laying down acrobatic and animalistic beatdowns like a man of half of his advancing years.  In the last little while I’ve not seen many action films made with a lethal combination of gnarly creativity and gut-punching potency.   

JOHN WICK is just such a glorious beast of a film.  

Boy, is it ever. 

  H O M E