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Review: John Wick

Michael C here with your Friday review

The screenplay for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is so simplistic it rises above laziness until it reaches a kind of glorious absurdist joke. What “plot” there is (and I’m typing those quote marks as hard as I can) could be adapted into a book for beginning readers without much stretching:

See John Wick’s wife die. John sad.
John’s wife leaves John dog. John slightly less sad.
See Russian mobster kill John’s dog. John mad.
See John kill. Kill, John, kill!

To gripe about the thinness of the script is to miss the point. A movie like John Wick is all about getting to the good stuff. When the story is pared down to such a degree it’s a giftwrapped opportunity for filmmakers to show off their chops by filling all that empty space with creatively staged mayhem and wild, indulgent detours, two things for which I am always on board. On such occasions, I am more than willing to disengage higher brain function for 100 minutes, lean back in my seat and say “Show me what you got!” silly grin on my face, drool collecting on my popcorn...

It turns out what Leitch and Stahelski got is a pleasing reminder of Keanu’s movie star prowess, sleek Michael Mann-ish visuals, and a bottomless reserve of gracefully staged kills with Keanu spinning and weaving like a black-clad ballerina as he shoots his way towards a triple digit body count. What they don’t got, however, is enough wit and imagination to prevent this infernal machine from sputtering frequently to a stop. 

Oh, there are some fun tangents in the movie, no question, but the filmmakers push those to the edge of the frame in order to make room for the cavalcade of kills, which grows monotonous despite the smooth efficiency of their execution both by the title character and the filmmakers.

Which is too bad, since some of the peripheral stuff is a hoot. I would have not complained one bit, for example, if the film had ceased being about John Wick’s grim pursuit of puppy vengeance and focused entirely on the hotel for assassins where the world’s elite killers can enjoy a peaceful drink under a banner of truce, and a 24 hour doctor is on hand for those times when the clientele checks in with their guts falling out.

I was also greatly amused by Michael Nyqvist as the Russian mob boss whose idiot son is the one who awakens the monster by killing the retired super-assassin’s dog for no reason beyond pure hatefulness. “John Wick is not the Boogeyman,” he explains to his gormless offspring, who can’t quite grasp why killing puppies is suddenly a bad thing. “John Wick is the one you send to kill the Boogeyman.” The character, like every other element of the film, is thin bordering on transparent, but Nyqvist plays him with a welcome dose of gallows humor. It’s as if he realizes he’s in a schlocky action movie and can calculate just how poor the odds of survival are for the mob boss who refuses to surrender the puppy-murdering cretin. He can barely keep a straight face as he orders wave after wave of henchmen at Wick. 

If I am making John Wick sound more fun than it is, it's only because it’s more enjoyable to focus on the good bits than to dwell on the long stretches of repetitive killing one has to wade through to get to the good bits. The kills are stylishly assembled to be sure, a big notch up from the visual incoherence that passes for action in most films these days, but they are painfully lacking in variety. There is also the matter of the cinematic negligence involved in assembling a supporting cast that includes no less than Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Clarke Peters, and John Leguizamo and giving them shockingly little to do.

As for the man formerly known as Neo, what is there to say besides the fact that he makes an elegant kill-bot? John Wick gives the viewer’s mind lots of free time to ponder just how perfect he is at playing this type of action ciphers. Masculine without being boorish, charismatic without winking, Keanu even manages to bring some vulnerability to a character that the script insists on portraying as borderline un-killable.

For connoisseurs of brainless action John Wick’s sprinkling of cleverness definitely places it above the dour, humorlessness of the Taken films, but well below a flick like Desperado which packs more creativity into any random three kills than John Wick manages in film’s worth of point blank blastings. Wick is a painless ride, but the film plays it straight when it should be going full tilt boogie. It’s almost like they think the audience might actually care about the story and want more out of John Wick than inventive violence and a few good one-liners. 

Nah. That can’t be it. C+



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Reader Comments (4)

Your review - and grade - pretty much hits the nail on the head.

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Great writing as usual, Michael. You crystallized Keanu's enduring appeal as a leading man. Cuz it sure ain't acting ability. This sounds like a fun rainy day matinee. Puppy murder--can't believe Death Wish 4 didn't use that!

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Saw it. Loved it.

I liked the way critic Stephanie Zacharek expressed it in The Village Voice: "How John Wick Restored My Faith in Violent Movies".

The long choreographed set pieces are very satisfying. Refreshing instead of the choppy shakey cam that now makes me zone out.

And Keanu Reeves. Elegant in movement, soulful, deeply authentic and sincere. I love that guy.

Afterwards, I was trying to analyze what made it so satisfying for me. I think for many action films, my suspension of disbelief involves ignoring the fact that many of the people making the movie are strangers to each other, just interested in making money.

But John Wick has the same satisfaction of watching a dance troupe, people who know each other very well, down to muscle memory, and are committed to their craft, at which they are expert.

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

It is a very interesting and very funny movie.

April 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSBO

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