John Wick is a very good movie that defies expectations. It straddles the line between camp and serious and manages to convince audiences to go along with its more outlandish aspects. This is due to some very commendable performances and excellent casting. The only glaring flaw is during a critical moment at its climax, which is the worst time to disappoint audiences. But up until that point, John Wick is rock solid entertainment.
When audiences meet John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he’s a seemingly ordinary man going through a tremendous loss; his wife (Bridget Moynahan) has passed away, but she’s left John with a dog that she thoughtfully scheduled to be delivered after her passing to help John cope. Unfortunately, John catches the eye of some Russian gangsters, who fancy John’s admittedly awesome car. They break into his home in the middle of the night, jump him, grievously injure his dog, and knock him unconscious. John wakes to find his dog has dragged her broken body to lie next to him and die – and John’s car is stolen. He discovers that the man responsible is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who is the son of John’s former boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who employed John as a hitman. With all hope stripped from him and only vengeance to fuel him, John wages a one-man war against his former allies.
For a revenge movie, John Wick is a little unorthodox. This is probably the first film in recent memory that revolved around avenging a dog. Granted, the dog represents so much more, but the fact that the film manages to use the dog as the symbol that makes all of John’s killing acceptable is a remarkable feat. The film also goes beyond the revenge genre to create a comic book-like world where assassins all know each other, converse like coworkers, and even have their own special currency – gold coins. So while the film establishes a certain amount of gloom, it also doesn’t mind lightening the mood to keep the movie fun.
The action is above average. There’s a large amount of gunplay with some decent fist fights to add variety. For the most part, the action is utilitarian; don’t expect to see anything stylish, like perfectly choreographed shootouts or martial arts. Instead, John dispatches his foes in a mostly straightforward manner. It should also be noted that the violence isn’t gratuitous. There is enough blood to get the point across, but it oftentimes feels inadequate, especially when there are so many headshots executed by high caliber weapons. The biggest complaint, however, is that John feels invincible most of the time, taking on multiple attackers who are presumably all experienced killers. So when John is sometimes outmatched or caught unawares, like near the beginning of the film, it feels contrived.
Cliché conventions are, of course, part and parcel to genre films like this, so John Wick shouldn’t be singled out for falling in line. In fact, it negotiates these familiar waters with aplomb, because of its excellent cast. Michael Nyqvist handles his role with particular relish, carving out multiple dimensions out of what would have been a very flat character in the hands of a lesser actor. Even when the script demands he act out classic and absurd bad guy scenes, like the final taunt before ordering his men to kill the bound good guy, Nyqvist makes the motions feel fresh and unique. Even Keanu Reeves loosens up, letting audiences see more emotions than they’re used to from him, and the movie experience is so much better for it.
The film finds its stride early, setting the tone with its measured action and with actors who truly own their characters. Even when the film reveals John’s secret life and edges toward a more cartoony reality, audiences will stick with the film and accept this new world. The film falters, however, when it tries to make actors, who were cast for their acting ability, engage physically. It oftentimes doesn’t work because too many concessions have to be made to get to the desired goal. So it’s hard to understand why the climax in John Wick is such a challenge when audiences have just watched John handle more challenging situations earlier in the film. It’s the kind of moment that takes viewers right out of the story and makes them lean over and ask the person next to them, “Why would he do that?” There are creative ways to make non-physical villains organically dangerous, but the filmmakers chose not to explore those options.
Despite the misjudgment during a critical moment in the film, John Wick is so well done and enjoyable that it could have used another 20 minutes to help flesh out John’s former life. Audiences will get a kick out of the mundane rituals, the coded lingo, and the reactions to people who have scary reputations. If John Wick could have maintained those smart film choices all the way through to the end, then this movie could have been great. As it stands, it’s just very good.