Mark Reviews Movies

John Wick


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: David Leitch and Chad Stahelski

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan

MPAA Rating: R (for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/24/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 23, 2014

The essence of style is efficient cohesion. Reduced to its essentials, it's a black suit with a black shirt and tie. The combination is simple, yes, but that simplicity makes a statement and conveys an attitude, too. For the hero of John Wick, the clothes tell us that he's in mourning, not particularly of the disposition to waste the time of picking out some color combination for his outfit, and in a really, really dark mood. His wife died, and then the spoiled son of a Russian mob leader stole his car and killed his dog. He's probably not thinking of what he should be wearing on a revenge-fueled killing spree, and he doesn't have the time to go through his closet. Anyway, black-on-black with an accent of black probably fits the occasion better than any other possibility.

Style isn't necessarily simplicity, but simplicity of form is style. Derek Kolstad's screenplay is all about simplicity. There's the good guy. There are the bad guys. There are the people that help either side. The goal is revenge, and the method is lots and lots of killing. It's bloody business, but it's also clean in how clear-cut it is. Above all, it's efficient.

This isn't a study of characters. All of them are killers, and out of that shared background, there are the "good" killers and the "bad" killers. It's not even a study of the criminal lifestyle, although the film does repeat the notion of a certain code of conduct among those in this profession. The suggestion is that assassins—perhaps even more than ordinary folk—need a set of rules by which to operate, because the alternative would be an amoral bloodbath. If someone breaks the rules, well, how do you think killers deal with people who go against the code?

The film is really a study of efficiency—not only in its characters and plotting but also in how its hero works. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a ruthless killing machine, but there's a certain elegance to how he goes about his business.

He fights with his fists and shoots a gun at his enemies like any other action hero, but the fight choreography routinely combines those basic elements of an action scene. One moment, he is pummeling a foe, and the next, his gun becomes an extension of his fist. Wick rarely stops to aim. He merely raises the gun like it's an uppercut following a quick jab, and suddenly, there's an explosion of the red stuff from his opponent's head. Other times, he waves his pistol like a sword toward one foe and then toward the next. Even reloading his gun becomes a part of his technique (It is nice to see an action film where the hero has to reload—and often).

The fighting is not akin to ballet, partly because that notion is a cliché and also because it feels improvised. These are the motions of someone in complete control of his physical capabilities and with an elevated level of situational awareness. That is a deadly combination, and once again, it's efficient.

As for the particulars of the plot, Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of Russian mobster Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), sees Wick's classic muscle car at a gas station and offers to buy it. When our hero refuses, Iosef breaks into Wick's house, kills the dog that was his deceased wife's (Bridget Moynahan) final gift to him, and steals the car. Wick wants to kill Iosef, and Viggo wants to protect his son and puts out a contract on Wick, who used to work for the criminal organization. Wick earned the nickname "The Boogeyman," because he's the guy one calls when the boogeyman needs to be killed.

There isn't much more to the story. Willem Dafoe plays a former colleague who keeps an eye on Wick, and Adrianne Palicki plays a fellow assassin who can't refuse a $4 million payday for killing Wick in a secret, surreal hotel with an entirely assassin-based clientele. The manager (Lance Reddick) is unflappably accommodating (Of course there's a doctor on call in the middle of the night to stitch up that gunshot wound, and perhaps the manager could suggest an alcoholic beverage to go along with the surgery?), and Winston (Ian McShane), the owner, insists that no business can be discussed there, as per the hotel's rules. It's not business for Wick, of course; it's personal.

It's intriguing how polite these characters are when they aren't attempting to kill each other (There's humor in that, especially a moment when a police officer arrives at Wick's door for a noise complaint after Wick has dispatched a horde of assassins). The film, though, is mostly about the killing part.

Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski take the fluidity of Wick's fighting technique to heart. That's the "cohesion" part of the film's style. The action sequences are shot from a distance (It's also notable how Leitch and Stahelski use wide shots near the beginning of the film to highlight Wick's isolation) and edited so that there is never a sense of spatial confusion. A few long takes are especially effective in showing off Wick's skills, particularly a shot that watches him and a bad guy in a death struggle over a knife.

Actual involvement in the characters or story is limited, so it's really a matter of observing the film with a detached sense of appreciation for how well it does what it sets out to do. John Wick is simple, no-frills entertainment. The filmmakers know this and get to it with the same level of efficiency as its hero.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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