Review: “John Wick”

Keanu Reeves stars in "John Wick," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.“John Wick” is the first feature that Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have ever directed, but their two decades working as stunt coordinators in Hollywood clearly taught them an invaluable lesson that prepared them for the job: efficiency is everything when it comes to action filmmaking. Because Staheleski and Leitch make optimal use of the resources at their disposal, never overindulging in stylistic excess for the sake of self-serving spectacle, the $20 million-budgeted “John Wick” appears of a higher production value and greater artistic sophistication than most of its bloated $100 million competitors.

The directorial duo’s most efficient decision does not even involve the action sequences themselves, but rather their portrayal of star Keanu Reeves. Protagonist John Wick is an extraordinarily threatening, virtually superhuman hit man, but the filmmakers do not bother with detailed exposition about his history, nor do they spend the opening scenes trying to make Reeves look especially menacing. (On the contrary, he is pictured in a vulnerable light, having just lost his wife to an illness.) Instead, Stahelski and Leitch trust that the viewer has seen Reeves’ previous films and know what he is capable of (which is to say, his ability to take down antagonists), employing a strategy that my colleague James Frazier would call “mining his iconography.” John Wick is essentially the culmination of Neo, Johnny Utah, and Jack Travern — not nearly as conventionally “good” as those heroes, but every bit as much of a badass. It frankly goes without detailing that the villains of “John Wick” have good reason to be scared.

Working from a script by Derek Kolstad, Stahelski and Leitch’s approach to narrative is similarly meat-and-potatoes, fueled by the abstract passions of genre filmmaking—vengeance, familial allegiances, justice, etc.—rather than convoluted mythology. (In fact, they tend to reject backstory entirely, never explaining the gold coins used as currency in the film, for example.) A Russian crime lord’s son (Alfie Allen) picks the wrong guy to mess with in Wick, stealing his car and murdering his puppy as payback for a random verbal scuffle at a gas station. Wick, no longer sworn to the crime-free life he initiated when he married his late wife, resolves to get even (after all, his dog’s life was more valuable than this punk’s). In other words, Reeves takes his off-screen P.E.T.A. advocacy to a whole new, militant level.

The action scenes become plentiful, but hardly exhausting, by the film’s second act. As one might expect out of choreographers-turned-directors, these are expertly constructed, combining the musicality of Stephen Chow with the balls-to-the-wall bravado of John Woo and Gareth Evans. The fact that Wick’s lethality—one by one, he shoots down dozens of Russian crime syndicate henchman, as they both actively pursue his murder and protect his target—does not become gnawingly repetitive is a testament to the original and inventive staging of each sequence. The action also makes great use of Reeves’ physical charisma and opportunities for humor, such as a moment in which Wick must reload his weapon, glancing at his next hit with a priceless facial expression that says “Hold on, I’ll get to you in a sec.”

In fact, for a movie with this drab a color palette and this high a body count, “John Wick” is surprisingly funny. But in Stahelski and Leitch’s spirit of efficiency, never is there a dedicated moment of “comedic relief” that distracts from the thrust of the plot. Instead, the humor is a matter of emphasis. When crime boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) learns that his son wronged Wick, for instance, his monosyllabic and matter-of-fact response of “Oh” is cripplingly funny. Likewise, Stahelski and Leitch’s selective variations in font face and color for some of the Russian subtitles—especially the word boogeyman—are more amusing than they have any right to be. This is all to say that, though its overarching tone can be quite grave, “John Wick” never falls for the common action movie trap of taking itself too seriously.

Whizzing by at a lean 101 minutes, “John Wick” recalls the modest, but thoroughly entertaining and well-crafted genre pictures that were a Hollywood staple in the 1990s, when Reeves’ star was at its highest, but which have been relegated mostly to low-budget, direct-to-VOD status in the aughts. That Reeves, now fifty years old, can still commandingly front this type of movie is impressive, his signature binary of softness and toughness continuing to prove culturally relevant. That being said, “John Wick” would not be the film that it is without Stahelski and Leitch, who don’t just deliver formidable stunts, but package them with elegance and good humor.