John Wick review – a thrill ride driven by a relentless vengeance machine

Keanu Reeves blasts back in a full-throttle action film that twists the conventions of the genre to exhilarating effect

It is a perfect marriage of artist and repertoire. Keanu Reeves, fit, trim and 50, starring in an action-first, story-second movie that years ago would have knocked ’em dead at the drive-in. John Wick is a slick, propulsive and ridiculous crime picture that strides like an automatic machine gun and has just as much subtlety. But its confidence and élan allow the story to take surrealist turns: more Boorman’s Point Blank than Bigelow’s Point Break.

John Wick begins with a cool montage that almost apes the “sad Keanu” meme. Our leading man, John Wick (who is almost always referred to by his full name – and why not, when it’s that cool?) is mourning the loss of his spouse in a modern suburban home that looks primed for a photo shoot in Dwell magazine. Before succumbing to disease, his wife organized the delivery of a puppy (cinema’s most adorable pet since almighty Uggie) to give him something to love as he tries to heal. When John Wick later runs afoul of some Russian gangsters who want to take his car, he tells them to buzz off in their native tongue. The thugs (led by Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) invade his home late at night, give him a beat down, steal his wheels and kill the pooch. One phone call later John Wick lets everyone know that the demon is out of the bottle.

What Allen’s bratty-ass punk Iosef didn’t realize was that John Wick used to be the top hit-man for his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). John Wick had effectively bought himself a right to a peaceful retirement through Herculean levels of mob enforcement, and now that that quiet has been shattered by the whimper of dead doggie, look out!

John Wick
Keanu and the dog: the cutest since Uggie from The Artist. Photograph: Public domain

Veteran stuntmen and second unit directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, making their debut as feature directors, stage the action with a fierce clarity. John Wick kills his way through neon nightclubs, art deco-inspired hotel rooms and eerily lit churches. Unlike, say, the work of John Woo, there isn’t a reliance on slow-motion, which affords the blunt, direct to the head gun-fu – a “holy cow, did he just do that?” shock value. When you think you’ve seen John Wick twist in the most acrobatic way to blast the baddie sneaking up behind him, he’ll strike another pose that tops it.

Of course, a movie about a relentless vengeance machine can only go so far. John Wick ups its game by stopping in for the night at a hotel for contract killers, opening a door into a criminal underworld that in lesser hands would seem silly. (Like, for example, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s recent Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.) In the urban environment of John Wick, an entire service industry of drivers, cleaners and bellman live by night and a code of ethics that, naturally, can be bent for the right price. One of the best things I can say about John Wick is that I’d really love to see more movies set in this world, and they don’t necessarily have to star these characters. But hopefully from the same directors, as their handle on this milieu feels refreshing and new.

From the use of colour and music to the scenery-chomping by supporting players Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, these are guys bursting with a love for genre cinema but aren’t too enslaved by affection to let in a little air. There’s a wonderful free spirit with the use of New York City locations that ditches verisimilitude for storytelling. The Surrogates’ Courthouse downtown is actually a Bosch-ian dance club with an interior of Scarface-esque hot tubs? Who in their right mind would disagree!

So much recent action cinema feels the need to be gritty, realistic and dark. John Wick is the fun alternative we’ve been waiting for.

  • John Wick is out on 23 October in US and Australia and 2 January 2015 in the UK


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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