Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I realize I am really behind on the John Wick train, but with a sequel having just left theaters, and the internet raving about this film I decided it might be time to see what Keanu Reeves is bringing to the action film genre again. I was apprehensive going into the film. How could an action film with such a silly premise be any good?Could I really trust an action film from 2014 to bring something different from all of the generic action films that are released every year? I was pleasantly surprised when the film ended to have watched something that stuck to its silly premise, but made it work for a story that has an incredible amount of world building that very few films achieve. John Wick is the first directing credit for Chad Stahelski, who has a background in martial arts and for a long time worked as a stunt coordinator or fight choreographer for dozens of other blockbusters. His only other directing credits include John Wick: Chapter 2, and the Highlander remake. It’s this long history and understanding of stunt work that has made John Wick such a successful film.
Keanu Reeves plays the titular John Wick. When the film opens, John has just experienced the death of his wife. After coming home to an empty house and realizing he is on his own a package is delivered; (a final gift from his wife) a puppy named Daisy. Daisy and John quickly grow attached to each other as Daisy comes to represent everything John has lost in his life and everything his life can not be after retiring from being a hit-man. After a run in with some Russian thugs at a gas station (lead by Alfie Allen), the thugs follow John back to his house where they kill his dog and steal his car. After loosing everything, John comes out of retirement to track down those thugs and kill them. Or, to put it simply, John Wick is about a retired hit-man coming out of retirement to kill the men who killed his dog. It’s a silly premise when it’s written out like that, and it only gets sillier as the film progresses, but it works. For an action film of this caliber, it’s not necessary for it to have a complex premise, because the film brings complexity in other aspects.
I mentioned above that John Wick has an incredible amount of world building that few films achieve. The most popular film in recent memory that achieved a similar amount of world building was Mad Max: Fury Road. In John Wick John spends his time at a hotel that appears to be exclusively for hit-men. John pays for his stay with a gold coin. He uses another gold coin to pay for the body cleanup at his home earlier in the film. Apart from a shot of John’s gold coin stash, and the few instances when he uses them, these gold coins are never explained. While at the hotel Ian McShane’s character mentions certain hotel rules. Several other character’s allude to these rules, but they are never explained nor does the film bother to explain what the other rules might be. John Wick is a film that realizes its audience is intelligent enough to piece bits of information together. Compare this to the recent film Kong: Skull Island where John C. Reilly’s character explains everything about Skull Island so that the characters and the audience don’t have to strain themselves to figure out what is going on.
Another way that John Wick sets itself apart from other action films in the way it approaches the fight scenes. With Chad Stahelski’s background in stunts, its not surprising that the film puts such a heavy emphasis on the fight choreography. In 2002 The Bourne Identity helped pioneer the rapid-cut fight sequences we’ve grown accustomed to in the last 15 years. There’s nothing inherently bad about this style of editing or choreographing a fight, but it runs the risk of turning into an incomprehensible mess. It’s a style that has been so overused at this point that it’s no longer interesting, and removes any drama from the situation. John Wick takes the time to create massive, long choreographed fight sequences that sometimes span across multiple levels of a building and through several rooms. There are very few rapid cuts, and shaky camera work throughout these fights. These long, focused, fight scenes make all of the actions more comprehensible and interesting since it emphasizes what the characters are doing as they fight each other. Using this style to the films advantage, the slow, focused, camera movements reflect the way John approaches the fights. He always surveys the area before making any moves, and when he does he is fully aware of his surroundings. Later in the film, when his enemy (Viggo) gets the drop on him, John enters a shootout with Viggo and his men without thinking, and the camera movements are more staggered and shaky compared to other scenes to emphasize his heightened emotional state during that scene. Rather than approaching the fight logically, John is letting his emotions dictate his actions, which ultimately leads to him making a mistake.
John Wick is a visually interesting film. Not only are the fights amazingly choreographed, but the films carries an aesthetic that could only be unique to this world. Many of the hit-men wear suits, which reflects a business-like nature of their work. But, rather than the typical, blockbuster orange and blue color grading, John Wick opts for greens and purples, and on some occasions those greens lean heavily toward yellow. Similar to how blue and orange are complementary colors on a color wheel, the purple and green tones are complementary, which gives the film such a pleasing aesthetic, while also being unique to this film compare to other major studio blockbusters. When these colors aren’t emphasized on screen with the lighting around the characters, the film comfortably sets itself in the neutral tones like grey and black. It creates a beautifully contrasted picture which large gaps between the brighter parts of the image and the darker parts which mimics film noir. If there is nothing to like about the story, at least this film is ridiculously good looking.
Its a good film with a silly premise, but it manages to do a lot of things right. If Chad Stahelski’s first director credit gives us a film with this level of quality, I can’t wait to see what he brings to John Wick: Chapter 2 and anything else he can get his hands on. At this point, its hard to imagine why studios can’t learn a thing or two about story telling and exposition when films like John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road prove that audiences don’t need to be spoon fed exposition in order to love a film.