There are a lot of reasons to get excited for a movie. It can be because you like the director, or the actors, or the plot — whatever. When the first trailer for the new Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick dropped, I got excited for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s about Keanu avenging the senseless death of his cute little puppydog: a cute little puppydog which — he informs us in the trailer in a snarly monotone — was a last gift from his dying wife. I don’t know why, but I find something hilarious about that. Maybe it’s because it gave me the sense that the film would have a kind of tongue-in-cheek honesty, an unwillingness to bullshit the audience with the same old kidnapped kid, murdered wife, shot-and-left-for-dead cliches that usually get thrown in our faces like a dead salmon in these revenge epic shindigs.
There’s something about John Wick‘s setup that seemed to say to me, “Look, we all know the motive is basically immaterial, let’s just not beat around the bush and have the bad guys kill a puppy.” And I respect that, in my own very weird way, and it piqued my interest. Then I learned that the film is co-directed by Keanu’s stunt double from Point Break, who has since gone on to a storied career as a stunt coordinator, and I knew this was something I had to see. But imagine my surprise when, after setting my expectations fairly low, John Wick turned out to be one of the better, possibly even the best, non-genre action flicks I’ve seen all year.
Keanu headlines as the titular John Wick, a hitman so skilled and feared that he could probably kill God with a wetnap and a stern glance. Before the start of the film, Wick left the life of a killer behind to settle down with his wife, a barely-in-the-movie angelic figure who dies of unspecified-itis, leaving Wick only with her cute little puppydog, and his impossibly loud muscle car to console him. But then the son of Wick’s former employer, a Russian mob boss, steals John’s car and kills the dog, oblivious to the unholy shitstorm he’s bringing down on himself. In answer to this, John goes on a vengeance tear like you wouldn’t believe, gunning his way through the underworld to get his bloody revenge.
Besides the previously mentioned cleverness (to me, anyway) of having the revenge motivator for the film be a puppydog, John Wick doesn’t have what you’d call a really original or groundbreaking script. Besides crafting a fairly interesting criminal underground, complete with its own currency and customs, what we’re getting is a dyed-in-the-wool revenge thriller. If there’s anything really wrong with it, it’s that it feels like it’s dawdling at times, like it’s wandering a little bit. Similarly, the direction during non-action scenes has a lot of flair, with lots of funky lighting and style to spare, but still isn’t anything to really write home about. The movie isn’t innovating in those regards, but then it isn’t trying to. That’s because, at the end of the day, this isn’t a writer’s film or even a director’s film. It’s a choreographer’s film.
For someone who’s been routinely frustrated by modern action scene photography and editing, which almost always obscures the action behind shakey cameras and tons of editing, John Wick is a breath of fresh air. You can actually tell what’s going on in the film’s plethora of gunfights, as the camera remains steady, filming the action from just the right distance, and the editing keeps the action moving but never confusing. And what we’re seeing is usually pretty damn awesome. John Wick is a gunfight movie, but rather than the run-and-gun, shoot ’em up style of the Expendables movies or something similar, with heroes and villains pouring lead into the air like bullet-filled snowblowers, most of the time in John Wick, things are strictly semi-auto. Wick’s fighting style feels precise and measured, based on skill rather than the ability to hold down a trigger until everything you don’t like stops moving. It feels like someone watched Equilibrium and liked the whole “martial arts as applied to gunplay” idea enough to actually do it right. So what we’ve got is a film with fun, interesting, well-choreographed and coherently filmed gunfights and action scenes. Which, if you ask me, is something I thought Hollywood just didn’t do anymore, and I’ve never been so glad to be wrong.
Of course, that isn’t to say that John Wick is a total snooze when the bullets aren’t flying and nameless goons aren’t being violently thrust off the mortal coil. Even if the script and direction are a tad unremarkable, that doesn’t preclude them from having occasional flashes of cleverness and charm. And if nothing else, the endless stream of cameos by actors I like kept my interest going. Everyone seems to pop up at one point or another, Clark Peters, Lance Reddick, Ian Mcshane, Willem Dafoe… Hell, even the guy who played Sully in Commando pops up, in a cameo I wouldn’t have spotted in a million fucking years had a friend not pointed it out.
John Wick is an action movie for people who think action movies have lost their way, one that was clearly made by people who have as much of a beef with the way action movies are made these days as I do. With a slightly better script, it would have been a sure contender for one of my favorite movies of the year. But even with it’s admittedly minor and easy-to-overlook faults, John Wick is a hell of a lot of fun, and perhaps an indication that maybe action movies are getting over some of the awful tendencies they’ve embraced for the past decade or so.