And then sometimes a movie comes completely outta nowhere to wow you. John Wick has no right — no right at all — to be as good as it is. As funky-elegant and as weirdly funny as it is. As smart about being fresh and cool with hoary clichés as it is. As visually intoxicating as it is. This is written by Derek Kolstad, whose only previous credits are a couple of cheesy direct-to-DVD Dolph Lundgren vehicles. It’s directed by stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski, with an apparently uncredited assist from David Leitch… who is another stuntman turned director. Either all three of these guys have a fairy godmother who owed them big time, or Hollywood has been making a concerted effort to keep new talent with actual talent away from the sandbox and these guys somehow managed to sneak in.
It’s entirely possible that both had to happen for John Wick to come into existence. Or maybe the planets aligned in an unexpected new way? However it happened: I love this movie so much. Not least because it’s different about being more of the same old stuff we always love.
The clichés bombard us right from the start, as if to get them immediately out of the way. John Wick is a retired professional killer who suddenly has nothing to lose — I mean, really. His beloved wife (Bridget Moynahan [Battle: Los Angeles, Ramona and Beezus], very briefly), who we are to understand had set her husband on the straight and narrow, has just died of some awful and lingering disease. She left him a puppy — an adorable puppy, a beagle, for cute’s sake — so he’d have something to take care of after she was gone. But then Bad Guys — or, at least, villains who are crazier and stupider than John Wick himself, who seems pretty far from either, even if he kills people for money — steal his car and snuff his dog. Just for fun. (If they had realized who he was, not only feared but goddamned legendary as an assassin, they would probably have left him alone.) Fear not, animal lovers: the scene is not graphic. But heartstrings are tugged. Pulled. Yanked. And the car is a ’69 Mustang, for Christ’s sake. Vengeance must be enacted.
This is the best part. I’m not kidding: John Wick is played by Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Dude has been unfairly maligned his entire career, but even all the nastiest things that have been said about his talent and his screen presence — which, I hasten to underscore, are slander, I tell you: slander — are perfectly aligned with this character. Wick so embodies noirish hardboiled stolidity that Reeves entire body of work could well have been leading to this performance. Even more so than The Matrix. This is Reeves’ at a prime that is like a new prime, because who could have seen this coming? Fifty — yes, Reeves is 50; I hope that makes you feel as old as it makes me feel — 50 is the new awesome.
But wait, there’s more. The way Reeves moves onscreen in this movie in the fight scenes is like nothing I have ever seen before in an action movie. It’s a subtle thing, not like martial arts — or at least like no martial arts we’ve ever seen onscreen before — but like dancing. Deadly dancing. But not even like any dancing we’ve seen before. From a purely cinematic perspective, it’s thrilling. Because it makes the brutal violent bloody mayhem feel innovative and inventive.
The fight choreography seems new and different, too, but that’s just the icing on the cake. John Wick feels at once modern, with its sleek palette of muted grays and browns, and retro, though not like any retro we’ve ever seen before. Its New York City is like something out of a now that is a result of the future as imagined from the 1950s, with a touch of fantasy, or at least an alt-reality, that is manifest in one of the central conceits of the film, a ritzy hotel, The Continental, that is a combination of refuge, social club, and safe space for felonious one-percenters. Maybe places like this do exist in the real criminal underworld, but if so, we’ve never seen anything like it onscreen before. It’s almost Sin City-ish (the spectacular first movie, not the crappy second one), but more plausible, more grounded. It’s the sort of thing that hints at a much larger world than what we see. Hooray that a sequel is in the works.
John Wick is pure popcorn thrills in a way that tired action retreads have forgotten recently. So good to see that someone cares about making blood and gore and revenge fun again.