Down and dirty revenge flick with a cast of guns that rivals the actors
Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski team up with screenwriter Derek Kolstad to produce a roller coaster of mayhem starring Keanu Reeves as semi-retired hit man John Wick. Trying to do the right thing, Wick is traumatized into bloody action when the mob rips away his last ties to anything resembling a normal life. There is little time for a back story in this movie and even less for a lot of touchy-feely character development. It is punching, kicking, stabbing and a lot of point blank gunplay packaged with the appropriately heartless choreography that makes a good splatter flick.
The cinematography is plain-jane throughout, consisting of mostly dark interior shots, dark exterior shots and the requisite noir rain-slicked streets. This darkness is complemented by Wick’s dark state of mind and the frequently over-the-top milieu of assorted psychopaths and good hearted killers that make up his world. Reeves says little and carries a big stick, along with a remarkably creative assortment of very sexy guns. Unfortunately, there is so little basis for us to empathize with Wick’s character that the well-executed action is largely for naught.
The best revenge films start with a character that is forced by circumstances to engage in violence against his own wishes. The protagonist is chosen by fate to engage in violence that he loathes. John Wick is not chosen by fate to kill people, he volunteers. As a result we are not especially moved by the pickles he finds himself in. Reeves’ channels Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (with an attempt at “High Plains Drifter”) and he gets it fifty percent right, which is good enough for this flick. The lack of spoken words helps the film by helping Reeves play a tough guy (dynamite tattoos!).
As the film veers back and forth between Dirty harry and James Bond, sometimes Wick takes time to reload, other times he simply reaches into his clothing and pulls out another exotic firearm. The guns themselves threaten to steal the show as Wick pulls them out of his hat faster than a burlesque magician with rabbits.
A hot tub gunfight echoes Viggo Mortensen’s steam room fight in “Eastern Promises,” but Reeves is about half the tough guy of Mortensen. Swede Michael Nyqvist is great as elder Russian mob boss Viggo (a nod to Viggo in “Promises”?), producing the best performance in the movie. Perhaps it is because Nyqvist is graced with a better part (the bad guys always get the best parts) or perhaps it is because he simply refuses to play the part straight, instead bringing a sardonic, dark humor to bear on his dual roles of heartless mob boss and frustrated father.
Viggo’s frustration is caused by his feckless son Iosef (Alfie Allen) who is incapable of doing anything right. The character development problem comes back to haunt the screenplay as Iosef is so thoroughly and consistently brainless that we find it hard to care what he does. A little oedipal development would have gone a long way here, but no such luck.
The high point of the film comes when Wick re-enters the world of double-crossing assassins and checks into the Continental Hotel, a sort of New York City co-op for killers, mobsters, gun runners and femme fatales. All dealing is done is cash, of course, as nobody knows who will live to pay their bill. The Amex is replaced by gold coins resembling Krugerrands. Dropping a Kruger into the slot in the door, Wick strolls into a lounge of the most hilarious assortment of international riffraff since the Star Wars Cantina in Mos Eisley. No light sabers required, since the hotel is a designated psycho safe zone presided over by hotel manager Charon (played to the hilt by Lance Reddick—“The Wire”). Of course, rules are made to be broken, especially with this frisky bunch, and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) can’t resist a fast four million in Krugers. Does bloodletting ensue? Can you see New York from the East River?
A fun film and one that delivers what it promises, if little more. Willem Dafoe joins a cast of minor characters who populate the fantastic world of Wick’s business associates; the hotel doctor who stitches up gunshot wounds like mom at a quilting party and the cleanup man who disposes of a dozen bloody bodies faster than the rooter guy cleans your drain. If the screenplay is thin, the production is solid and the violence unabashedly up close and personal. Thanks to the film makers for including only one car chase (it should have been left out). Animal right activists, John Wick’s puppy was not really killed by the mob, he is alive and auditioning for the next “Lassie.”