Ah…the Keanu Reeves paradox confronts us once again! I’m going to call it like it is (as usual) and say out loud that Keanu Reeves is not a particularly good actor. This should come as no revelation to anyone. His range is about one inch, his voice modulation is, uh, nil, and his ability to emote is…well…let’s just skip ahead. And yet…audiences flock to his films, just like I do. So what’s that about? Post MATRIX series he has straddled the film world in both big-budget gunslingers and idiosyncratic indies. He has become a commanding presence and a desirable action star. He is handsome, fit, mysterious (probably because his lines are typically left to a minimum) and he brings an intensity and style to an action role which is his alone. More elegant than Jason Statham, less snide than Bruce Willis, not really as intellectual or righteous as Denzel Washington, younger than Liam Neeson, he looks great, presents a focused ruthlessness, chilling intensity and a coolness that’s hard to match. I happen to like films like this. Body count in the hundreds? Bring it on. A personal arsenal with dozens of guns? The more the merrier. Multiple razor sharp knives? THAT’S a party! And so the Keanu Reeves paradox continues in the new film JOHN WICK, which will not let you down and, as it did me, may just surprise you.
The story is simple; vengeance. Sure there are extenuating circumstances but at its core JOHN WICK is a revenge movie and don’t we all love revenge stories? John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman for New York City’s top Russian mob boss. If I have to tell you that the Russian mafia has largely replaced the Italian mob as the new go-to villains you need to get out more. Wick left the business because he fell in love. It’s always a damn woman’s fault. The film opens with a mostly silent and beautifully stylized chronicle of their love and her untimely death. The scene of her funeral bears mentioning for its art direction; shot from above the open grave, raindrops falling like little slivers of metal, her shiny black casket being lowered into the ground amidst a dark sea of slick open umbrellas, it is a modernly bleak and arresting visual. It is also not the only one in the film. The film jumps on the current trend of using highly infused shifts in color to denote mood and time. Some films accomplish this better than others and JOHN WICK does a respectable job of it. This is not to mention that his home, his car, his clothes, his facial hair, everything, is stunning, sleek and way cooler than you or I will ever be. OK, I take it back: cooler than you’ll ever be. With impeccable timing for a dead person, Wick’s wife has pre-arranged delivery of a shockingly cute beagle puppy to their home on the day of her funeral. Nothing wins over an audience like a cute guy with an even cuter puppy. For those of you who have not seen the trailer – jump to the next paragraph. For those of you who have seen the trailer, you know, as we all did the minute that puppy came out of the crate and started sleeping in the bed, it was not going to end well for Daisy the beagle. And thus, her demise, as well as Wick’s own close call, reignites Wick’s former motivation and skill set . And the bodies start to pile up.
There are several notable things about JOHN WICK which elevates it above the typical action slaughter-fest. The supporting cast is spot on, not merely in their looks which are matched perfectly to their corresponding roles, but it is comprised of legitimately talented actors. Michael Nyqvist (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Sweden) is the genuinely menacing Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov. His approachable and charming ‘Mikael Blomkvist’ of The Millenium Trilogy has vanished and in his place is a disturbing and volatile force of nature. Willem Dafoe is a fellow gun for hire, John Leguizamo a perfect chop-shop owner, and Ian McShane is the owner of a very special private club. Alfie Allen is the Russian boss’ loose canon son Iosef who is asking for a horrible and gruesome death from the moment we meet him. Honorable mention must go to both Lance Reddick (THE WIRE) who plays the unflappable manager of said club with a velvety smooth delivery and impeccable comedic timing, and Clarke Peters (also from THE WIRE) who has a short but memorable role as Harry that left me wanting his character to have a film all his own. I was less impressed with Adrianne Palicki, who plays Ms. Perkins, a fellow hit-person. While I greatly appreciate letting girls play shoot & kill with the boys, she falls into an all-too-common female villain character dripping with sarcasm which prevents you from believing anything about her. I’m not sure why females in violent roles must, by and large, play it overly cocky and acerbic, but I can tell you that here she serves merely as an irritant and that’s unfortunate.
The film has a handful of very funny moments. Not funny in that you are laughing at it, but genuinely humorous, well written and perfectly delivered. Clever visual puns abound as well. Wick and his fellow mercenaries exist in a parallel universe with its own secret clubs, rules, services and currency – both monetary and human. And gosh darn it, it’s just so cool. It is aiming to be a 21st century new James Bond a little bit. This steely and mysterious alternate universe comes from co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both of whom are accomplished stunt performers. The fight sequences are good and you can see hints of recent Asian martial arts films here with well choreographed battles which are skillfully filmed so you can see all the action clearly.
Two glaring miscalculations however come in the form of music and subtitles. While the overall score for the move serves it well, the hard rock song with screaming vocals really cheapens its scene, and the subtitles that float all over the screen and light up in color give the film an necessary comic book feel which doesn’t fit. The presence of humor in the film does not make it a farce but the song and kooky subtitles – which are trying to be cutting edge – are just distracting and denigrate the movie overall. I did find myself hoping two-thirds of the way through that it was not a film which would just dissolve into a who-will-kill-whom-first story, and while some of that and its ensuing deceleration is inevitable, I was satisfied with the movie’s conclusion. Be forewarned though…if you can’t stand the stunt-puppy heat, don’t walk into the fire.(3 / 5)
Movie Review John Wick