Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen, Michael Nygvist, Adrianne Palicki & Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: October 2014
Running Time: 101 mins
Synopsis: When sadistic young thugs senselessly attack John Wick, a brilliantly lethal ex-assassin, they have no idea that they’ve just awakened the boogeyman. With New York City as his bullet-riddled playground, Wick embarks on a merciless rampage, hunting down his adversaries with the skill and ruthlessness that made him an underworld legend.
John Wick has been one of those popular films that I’ve heard referenced frequently by others, but have never actually seen myself. Singlehandedly responsible for the Keanu Reeves renaissance of the 2010s, John Wick soon became another role that the quirky bohemian actor was synonymous with, following in the footsteps of Ted “Theodore” Logan and Neo (two roles he subsequently reprised in the 2020s following the success of the John Wick franchise). With an extended career spanning decades, Reeves has been something of a mainstay in popular culture and known for undertaking unorthodox and varied roles. The sudden spotlight and renewed interest in the actor (particularly online) feels reminiscent of John Travolta’s own rebirth following his role in Pulp Fiction, Liam Neeson’s turn towards thrillers with Taken, or more recently, the internet’s current fascination with Brendan Fraser. After hearing plenty of positive things, I was keen to experience the John Wick franchise for myself.
An evolution of the “gun-fu” action style pioneered in The Matrix, John Wick somehow manages to combine gritty realism and unbelievable stunts together in a juxtaposing symmetry that is simply gorgeous to watch. The action is so fluid and exhilarating that it comes as no surprise to discover that the film’s director Chad Stahelski had previously worked as a stunt co-ordinator in many action films, including The Matrix trilogy. The choreography of the action is just brilliant, and Stahelski employs a number of bold camera shots to accentuate the drama and action of the situation. The initial opening ten minutes are rather sedate and emotive (reflecting Wick’s own mental state) but once he comes out from retirement, there is an injection of energy behind the camera and it erupts into violence onscreen.
With the minimum amount of exposition, the film establishes Wick as a legendary assassin and “boogeyman”, as well as this curious underworld of Russian mobsters and assassins bubbling beneath the surface. The world-building is first-class and the film just hints at the prior relationships between Wick and the characters he is becoming reacquainted with, leaving viewers to fill in the blanks for themselves. Wick’s re-emergence into the criminal hierarchy is presented as a momentous event, and he comes across as a true force of nature that has been inadvertently unleashed. His quest for revenge feels reminiscent of The Punisher, or Beatrix Kiddo’s mission in Kill Bill, and it is utterly enthralling to watch Wick cut through swathes of mob minions in order to get to his prey.
A man of few words, Keanu Reeves instils Wick with an unspoken confidence and calm through his body language and looks. He comes out of the first act fully formed as an iconic action hero, and his immediate popularity has spawned two sequels (with two more planned), a VR experience, a strategy game and an appearance in Fortnite and Payday 2. John Wick might be the last great action hero (outside of superhero movie franchises) and with his slim build, long hair and stubble beard, he is a far cry from the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and even, The Rock.
As traditional for a revenge thriller, the plot of John Wick is a simple ‘cat and mouse’ game with Wick causing havoc throughout the city in his attempts to get revenge on the man who killed his pet dog. On paper, it seems laughable that a hitman would kill hundreds of people to avenge a puppy, but the film manages to make it seem like a perfectly rational solution. There are a few moments where common sense takes a back seat to action movie tropes (multiple times Wick and his nemesis Viggo fail to take the opportunity to kill the other one) but on the whole, the movie avoids any laughable plot holes. The streamlined narrative allows the action set-pieces to stand out and there are plenty of strong contenders for “best fight scene” to pick from. My personal favourite is the sequence in the nightclub, which just encapsulates the “neon-noir” vibe of the film as Wick chases after his prey amidst flashing lights and loud music.
While Reeves carries most of the weight of the film on his charming shoulders, there is an eclectic mix of supporting characters that help breathe life into this movie universe. Adrianne Palicki is great as Ms. Perkins, a slightly unhinged contract killer who is willing to bend the rules in order to come out on top. I’m familiar with Palicki from her roles as a super-spy on Agents of SHIELD and a crazed serial killer on Criminal Minds, and this character sits comfortably in the middle of that spectrum. She definitely adds a different dimension to the film which is populated with disposable male bullet fodder, and Palicki plays her perfectly. There’s a number of brief cameos from other recognisable actors such as Lance Reddick (Charon), John Leguizamo (Aurelio) and Ian McShane (Winston Scott); each of whom give a slight hint at a past with Wick, building up that history and make the cinematic universe feel so much richer. It reminds me a little of Star Wars and how the cantina scene introduced so many little alien background characters (mostly to sell action figures) but also to build an expanded universe outside of the single story seen on-screen.
Willem Dafoe is another highlight as the enigmatic Marcus, a potential rival of Wick’s who might also be hoping to cash in on the bounty on his head. Dafoe keeps you guessing as to what his true motivations are throughout the film, and while his role was ultimately quite short, he was very watchable. The main focus of the film is on the father and son duo Viggo & Iosef Tarasov, played by Michael Nyqvist and Alfie Allen. Allen manages to quickly turn the audience against him and the rest of the film is waiting for him to get his just desserts, whereas Nyqvist is a far more captivating villain, torn between family and duty and a sense of inevitability that the “Baba Yaga” his son has awoken is going to get him. There are countless other smaller side-characters that get a moment or two in the spotlight, giving the film a sense of depth that most other revenge thrillers lack.
The term “modern classic” is often bandied about without merit, but John Wick is a film fully deserving of the accolade, especially with the benefit of almost ten years hindsight. Bursting fully-formed onto the pop culture consciousness, Keanu Reeves treats us to another iconic and career-defining performance in a career that never ceases to surprise. As innovative and game-changing as The Matrix was back in 1999, John Wick is a thrilling masterclass of action choreography, storytelling and characterisation that is seldom seen in big-budget action films. Reeves’ charisma, Stahelski’s intimate knowledge of stunt choreography and the evocative world-building all come together to build something truly special, and from what I’ve heard, the sequels get even better.