On its surface, John Wick seems to be little more than another installment in the often mindless generic action genre. Get a recognizable name to hold a gun and blam, instant hit on a slow October weekend. And yet, John Wick aspires to be more than a simple cash-grab for its studio. Oh no, John Wick is made with a passion that is often lacking in its bullet-frenzied brethren, and it elevates this film from being just another forgettable flick to being a template for what future action films should aspire to replicate.
The set-up is actually rather deceptively simple: a group of hooligans break into the home of a man who they think disrespected them, beat him up, steal his vintage car, and kill his dog. Little did these idiots know that they just pissed off one of the world’s greatest retired assassins, John Wick, and now they have invoked his wrathful vengeance. The leader of the gang is the son of a powerful Russian mobster, so John must fight through henchmen and contract killers in order to exact his revenge.
This simple set-up works well primarily for two reasons. First, the character of John Wick is precisely as complex as he needs to be. This film recognizes that it is not a form of high art, nor does it aspire to be, but the film’s first act is spent establishing John, making him sympathetic through a backstory involving the loss of his wife to an illness, yet also emphasizing through a slow and methodical reveal that he is not a person you want to fuck with. Given his poor track record, one might be skeptical of Keanu Reeves filling the protagonist’s shoes, but if there is one thing he is good at portraying, it is stoic determinism, and that’s all that John needs to be effective.
The second and probably most important thing that the film does is an astounding amount of world-building with a minimal amount of exposition. John’s conflict with the mob is the primary plot-driving force, but it’s clear that all the film’s characters have a history with one another. We don’t need the Cliff’s Notes of their lives in order to make that clear, but we can piece together their relationships through conversation, mannerisms, or even just by recognizing the character actors filling the roles. This is all constructed around a pseudo-fantastical underground criminal society that operates by clear rules and etiquette that are never bluntly explained, but are simply apparent through character behavior and clever direction.
But even without the superb structure, writing and character direction, this film has some really great gunfighting scenes, where Reeves combines his martial artistry with some expert gunplay that make the fights both engaging and intense. Sure, his superhuman abilities are somewhat unrealistic and therefore removes some tension from the fights, but this isn’t a film where one worries about the fate of its hero. Rather, we’re here to watch him kick ass and take names in a righteous cause of revenge, and as an empowerment fantasy this not only works, but it works superbly.
In short, I really enjoyed John Wick. It has some truly unique qualities that make it stand out in my mind as among the best in the gunplay action subgenre, and it’s a flick that I’ll surely revisit when I just need to sit back and enjoy something good. But if you haven’t seen it yet, then you probably should.
Favorite Keanu Reeves flick? Leave yours in the comments.