Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"John Wick" (2014)

Starring Keanu Reeves, Alfie Allen and Michael Nyqvist
Written by Derek Kolstad
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Rated R - Violence, nudity, strong language
Running Time: 101 Minutes

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) grieves the loss of his wife (Bridget Moynihan). Not long after her funeral, a package arrives at his door — a small puppy named Daisy, a gift from his wife so that John will have something to love and won't have to grieve alone. Unfortunately for John Wick, his bad luck is going to continue. Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of the mobster John used to work for, takes a liking to John's car — a 1969 Ford Mustang. When John refuses to sell it to him, Iosef gathers his buddies and breaks into John's home in the night. They beat John, kill Daisy and steal his car.

Big. Mistake.

Because John Wick, as Iosef's father Viggo Tasarov (Michael Nyqvist) explains, was the Boogeyman — an assassin so good, and so feared, that killing him will be next to impossible. Viggo is not unsympathetic to John's plight, but he certainly can't allow him to simply kill his son. And so, Viggo puts a contract out on John Wick... and prays someone will get lucky.
"John Wick" the film is, like John Wick the character, simple but effective. This film is, without a doubt, one of the most purely entertaining entries of 2014 even if it doesn't aspire to be much more than 100 minutes of badassery and asskicking. This is not to say that there's no depth here at all; "John Wick" gets to mine some emotion out of us in its opening scenes, but as it does so with everything else, it rather fascinatingly does so in a particularly efficient manner.

In just a few scenes, the script from Derek Kolstad tells us a lot about what we need to know about John Wick's current emotional state. We learn about his wife's illness and her death with a few quick flashbacks that are mostly without dialogue, and we can tell he's alone now by watching his morning routine - washing up in a his-and-hers bathroom with her side still kept neat, grabbing one of the two coffee mugs on the counter next to the drip machine, etc. These are all visual cues that tell us what's happening in the life of John Wick.

And in terms of the John Wick character, that's a trend that will continue throughout the film. Keanu Reeves has very little dialogue. Instead, most of the conversations in the movie are people talking about John. These are often pretty entertaining, though when he does speak, Reeves manages to get the job done. He's never been a particularly good actor, but he does somehow manage to choose roles that work with his limited range. John Wick is another one of those; not much is required of him other than presence and physical prowess, and those are the things that Keanu Reeves is generally pretty good at.

Later, after Iosef has made his big mistake, we learn even more about him just by how people react to what Iosef has done. When Viggo is told by a chop shop owner named Aurelio (John Leguizamo in a brief but fun cameo) that Iosef has stolen John's car and killed his dog, Viggo's response tells us everything we need to know: "....Oh." It's so very simple, but so very effective. Much of the rest of the film proceeds in this manner.

The rest of the cast is filled out nicely by the likes of Willem Defoe as another assassin named Marcus, Adrienne Palicki as an assassin named Perkins (she gets a great fight scene in a hotel against Reeves), and even Ian McShane who seems to be some kind of broker or manager for the assassins. Everyone here is having a blast, and it shows. Palicki and McShane in particular get some really great moments. Michael Nyqvist owns every scene he's in, hands down.

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who had previously worked on Hollywood stunt teams and with Keanu Reeves on a number of his big films (like "The Matrix") have crafted a very fun and stylish action film. The fight sequences in "John Wick" are first rate. Each encounter John has with enemy thugs or assassins is more entertaining than the last. A centerpiece action sequence in a night club and Russian bath house is pure joy from an action standpoint. The mix of gunplay and martial arts is seamless and the directors and Reeves somehow manage to make John seem vulnerable and unstoppable at the same time.

Also fascinating is the world of the assassins that Kolstad's script introduces. There's a lot of intriguing little touches here that hint at a larger universe just under the surface, with the assassins having their own sort of hub at this hotel and even an economy all their own. It opens up franchise potential without shoving it down the audience's throat, something that seriously hampered the last "Spider-Man" film.

Ultimately, if you're looking for a couple hours of interesting ideas, intriguing filmmaking and some seriously badass action sequences, then "John Wick" will serve you well. It's pure pop art, entertaining and well made from start to finish.