Review: “John Wick”

How many revenge films have we seen where an ordinary man with a loving wife and beautiful children goes on a killing spree to avenge the deaths of that family at the hands of some evil men? Too many to count.

As sad of a statement on society as it may be, most audiences have become desensitized to such a thing. After years, decades even, of watching violence onscreen, revenge movies just don’t seem to have as strong an impact. This realization is where the terrific “John Wick” finds its inspiration.

It gets that whole pesky family thing out of the way before the movie even starts, as our titular character John (Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife to cancer. Soon after, he receives a puppy with a note from his late wife telling him that he’s going to need something to love. So he takes care of the dog for about a day or so until some lowlife mobsters, led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), kill it in the act of stealing his car.

It’s a brutal scene, the one truly serious dramatic moment in the entire movie, and it is precisely what gives the movie its edge. Many viewers are inclined to sympathize more with the death of an animal than a person, especially one as young and innocent as the puppy portrayed here, so while John’s reaction may be extreme, you’ll nevertheless be rooting for him to kill every single mobster in that organization.

And boy, will he. At a swift 95 minutes, “John Wick” doesn’t have the time to pussyfoot around with dialogue or character arcs. The movie’s focus is pure action and exploring the different ways one can shoot someone else in the face. Given that it’s directed by two stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, such a focus should come as no surprise. They know their strengths and they make no attempt at pretending like what they’re making is high art. Their goal was clearly to make a fun movie with a high body count and some truly impressive action sequences. In that regard, “John Wick” is a rousing success.

One must give credit to writer Derek Kolstad as well for knowing exactly what tone he wanted to convey. This film knows what it is and various scenes and dialogue exchanges (what few there are, at least) confirm as much. There’s a very tongue-in-cheek attitude about it and there are some big, albeit dark, laughs to be had, like when John, in the middle of an action heavy killing spree, runs out of bullets just as he’s about to shoot someone in the head, so he casually reloads with an annoying look on his face while his soon-to-be-victim stumbles around. Despite a muted color palette of dark greys and blacks that suggest despair, moments like this ensure the film never gets too dour.

What really makes this humor work, though, is a standout performance from Keanu Reeves, who plays it brilliantly straight. Were it not for a couple scenes so goofy it would be impossible to remain oblivious to it, you’d swear Reeves was acting as if he thought he was in something more dramatic and emotional.

The juxtaposition between his straight faced performance and the self-aware movie it’s in gives “John Wick” an interesting angle and a unique feeling that nothing else this year has quite captured. With his shady background and violent tendencies, his character isn’t exactly what one would call a hero, but hey, they killed the guy’s dog. And it was really cute.

It might be strange to say it, but “John Wick” is one of the year’s best films. Its narrative is practically empty and its characters lack much personality, but whereas other movies suffer for such deficiencies, this one excels. It’s all about finding the right tone, that sweet spot between taking yourself too seriously and all out self-parody, and “John Wick” movie nails it.