John Wick – Review ****

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The last time the world (kind of) saw Keanu Reeves was in the 2013 martial arts flop 47 Ronin, a film more notorious for putting Universal Studios deep in the red than its poor critical reception, and it would be fair to say it was a project that could’ve damaged his career. Fortunately, ex-stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski (Matrix-trilogy) makes his directorial debut in this action-packed tongue-in-cheek film that has received both critical praise and financial success in USA and abroad. Does the hype hold up? The short answer is pretty much.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has lost his wife Helen to an undisclosed illness, and receives a posthumous present. The present is a puppy named Daisy, which appears to help him deal with his grief. When Wick is filling petrol at a local gas station, Russian gang member Iosef (Alfie Allen) attempts to intimidate him into selling his Mustang car. Later that night, and after refusing to sell his car, Iosef and his gang beat up Wick, steal his car, and kill his puppy. That’s when Iosef’s gangster father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) tells him the man they attacked and stole from was a highly sought after hitman that helped build the Viggo empire. Viggo knows John Wick is out for revenge, and will be taking out every mobster one at a time.

From the plot summary to the trailer one would expect this to be a simple revenge story, and while this is the trajectory for Wick’s motivation, the world both he and the other characters live in provides something original. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, there is a hotel called The Continental which works as a neutral-ground for the criminal underworld (think Switzerland). This world-creation aesthetics exists not only at the surface but finds its way into the characters. Actors like Willem Defoe, Ian McShane, and John Leguizamo, have characters with their own dimensions, agencies, and roles within this universe.

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The script also produces smart (not intellectual) dialogue. There is a wry sense of humor crossing through this, which helps maintaining the fictional environment; it does not pretend this could happen. Furthermore, the film doesn’t rely on exposition to explain every facet of this universe, which allows the audience to fill in the blanks.

Those who are familiar with Keanu Reeves’ work ethics will understand he performs the majority (if not all) the stunts himself, and prefers longer takes for the audience to see the action in its entirety. This lack of short shots and rapid editing that has plagued the action genre as of late helps elevate this film above the rest. By increasing the shot lengths one is able to witness the highly imaginative and undoubtedly well-choreographed set pieces; one can definitely see the influences of gun-fu from 1980s Hong Kong films. There’s pacing both within the sequences and through the narratives syntax, successfully conveying a highly charged atmosphere.

Music by Tyler Bates helps compliment the film’s pacing through its usage of hip-hop, dubstep, industrial rock, and electronica. The music is effectively used to heighten tension, or for comedic punchlines. It is this flexibility of genre, and its diegetic and non-diegetic delivery that ensures every scene serves a purpose and appears fresh.

John Wick is aptly dubbed as Keanu Reeves’ comeback film. The ensemble cast, the smart script and its world building aesthetics allows space for a possible franchise – one may ask who will join for its sequel. The film’s wry sense of humor, the imaginative action scenes, and its unrelenting pacing ensures it gets the most of its 100 minute run time. If one is looking for a Hollywood action film done right, then one need to look no further than John Wick. It is easily the best action film of the decade so far.

 

John Wick will be in UK theatres from 15th April 2015. 

Matthew Lee is an undergraduate student in the field of Film Studies at King's College London and a freelance film critic with keen interests in World Cinema, Cult Cinema and Silent Cinema.