Seeking out the

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John Wick

Directed by Chad Stahelski
Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Eva Longoria, Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, and Mike Witherill
Written by Derek Kolstad
With: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, and Clarke Peters
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Editing: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Music: Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard
Runtime: 101 min
Release Date: 24 October 2014
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Low expectations are the filmgoer’s friend.  When I first heard about John Wick, an action thriller directed by a couple of stunt coordinators and starring Hollywood’s dimmest star, Keanu Reeves, I had no intention of seeing it. But after some good word of mouth and recommendations from a few trusted friends, I decided to give it a go. My expectations remained low because I’ve been convinced to see a lot of terrible movies in this way. So it was a pleasant surprise to find such a competent and stylish picture awaiting me at the multiplex.  John Wick, which tells the story of an ex-hitman (Reeves) who comes out of retirement when the son of his former boss takes away his reasons for living a quiet, normal life, is little more than an excuse for staging multiple action sequences. But first-time director Chad Stahelski makes full use of the opportunity, not only creating some wildly inventive fights, chases, and scenes of gunplay, but also crafting an elegant narrative framework around them. 

Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix trilogy and the stunt coordinator for dozens of films, like V for Vendetta, The Expendables pictures, and The Hunger Games series. One of John Wick’s main producers (and perhaps its uncredited co-director), David Leitch, also worked extensively in the world of stunts and second unit action directing. But looking back on the extensive list of credits for these two men—Leitch’s work goes back to 1991 where his first major gig was doubling Reeves in Kathryn Bigelow’s cult FBI-undercover-surfer thriller Point Break—nothing in the line up would lead me to expect that they could create exciting action scenes, let alone craft a memorable thriller. I made this presumption because the action/adventure genre has deteriorated so much over the past 20 years due to the reliance on CGI techniques, which have all but removed the laws of physics from action pictures and invariably reduced most Hollywood thrillers to animated cartoons. 

But Stahelski and his team utilize the tricks of modern digital filmmaking to give John Wick’s inventive violence an exaggerated yet well-founded quality. They know how to establish the geography of their characters’ surroundings and continuously surprise us with unexpected, yet tenable details. The film presents an enjoyable blend of cool, controlled grandeur and slick, cheesy elegance, reminiscent of director Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice).  Also like Mann, Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad patiently take the time to set up their world and the characters that inhabit it before they start shooting off the guns and blowing up the cars. Everything that happens in John Wick may be ridiculous—this is a movie involving an extensive subculture of assassins and wealthy criminals who play by agreed-upon rules and hang out in private hotels and nightclubs where everyone knows each other by name, face, and reputation—but it never deviates from its own internal logic.  Occasionally the tone dips too far into self-parody, and Stahelski indulges in too much digital post-production (his excessive use of color grading and the distracting way he animates the subtitles for his Russian villains occasionally makes the otherwise adroit film look like a TV commercial) but these are minor complaints.

A bigger problem is Reeves, who’s never been a credible leading man in anything but extremely broad comedies like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). As an action hero he possesses neither the winsome world-weary quality of Liam Neeson nor the ageless, inexhaustible energy of Tom Cruise. Unlike Daniel Craig he can’t convey an agile mind working frantically away behind a stoic façade, and unlike Clive Owen he possesses no devilishly humorous undercurrent. Like his younger, more overrated clone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he’s not a good enough actor to actually inhabit a character on screen, and can only play himself.  But here again, the filmmakers are adept at working within limits. John Wick is a man of few words, so we don’t have to suffer through much awkward, James-Bond-like banter (which Reeves could never pull off). And after working together on so many films, Stahelski seems to know exactly how to use Reeves’ skills when the guns, knives, and fists come out. Not since Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011)—which starred mixed martial arts star Gina Carano—have I seen such well executed and original fight scenes in such an elegant, well cast, if ultimately silly, picture.