The central premise of John Wick is so clichéd, derivative and inherently silly that it’s easy to be surprised by the sheer quality of the actual film surrounding it. This is unashamedly little more than a modern interpretation of an action premise already two decades out of date: a widely-known, universally-feared professional killer is forced out of his self-imposed retirement to beat, stab and shoot his way through an army of Russian mobsters and rival assassins. Why? Because Theon Greyjoy killed his dog.
There’s more to it than that, but only just. The eponymous John Wick was once the most competent hitman to ever grace the blood-soaked world of organized crime. Now, he’s a laconic widower who lives alone in his big house being Sad Keanu. He has a 1989 Mustang which he sometimes drives very quickly around a private airfield, and he has a beagle named Daisy; a final P.S. I Love You-style posthumous gift from his recently deceased wife. So, when the son of a Russian mob boss turns up at his house, bludgeons his dog and steals his car, John Wick is forced to dig up his buried weaponry and return to work in order to exact his vengeance.
I appreciate that this is rather daft, but it occurs to me that people in action films have been killed for much less. So have people in real life. As it stands, Daisy’s death is little more than a functional hook on which to hang a multitude of interesting personalities, locales and scenarios, pretty much all of which in some way relate to, allow for, or actively encourage John Wick’s unparalleled gun-fu.
As a film, John Wick does two important things very well. The first is, unsurprisingly, action; there are maybe six or seven big fight scenes, and they’re all practically overflowing with a kind of slick, violent artistry. Debut directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski cut their teeth working as stunt doubles and action coordinators on pictures such as Fight Club, The Bourne Legacy and the Matrix trilogy, and they clearly have a knack for crafting compelling, kinetic action sequences. The mayhem isn’t chopped into short shots and shuffled around, but rather presented in long, clear takes which afford the audience the best possible view all of the time. It’s unapologetically brutal and over-the-top, but when it’s as stylish as this that really doesn’t matter.
What’s more pleasantly surprising is that John Wick is pretty much a masterclass in cinematic worldbuilding. This is a richly-textured, densely-realized world, but it’s introduced and subsequently fleshed out in the most organic way possible – through action, and how the characters communicate and interact with one another. There’s no need for verbal exposition or genre tropes such as flashback sequences; the who’s, what’s and why’s are all explained through their use in the story. It’s incredibly rare to see such narrative subtlety in a hard action film like this, and while the near-constant murder is enjoyable on a superficial level regardless, its significantly more satisfying when it and the characters engaged in it all function within the broader context.
Part of the reason this works so well is how utterly convincing Keanu Reeves is in this type of role. For such an iconic Hollywood star, he seems to have an uncanny degree of self-awareness, and whatever you might think of his range he knows exactly which parts fit him and which don’t. The bottom line is that there’s pretty much no other actor on earth who embodies this kind of character as fully as he does, and his very presence lends John Wick a sense of gravitas and meta-textual significance which he simply wouldn’t have had he been played by a more classically versatile actor without Reeves’s body of work. As a result, when characters do that typical 90s-style action movie thing of constantly discussing how much of a badass the hero is, you find yourself nodding along in agreement because if he’s played by Keanu Reeves then he more or less has to be.
The wealth of talented character actors do their respective parts exceptionally well too, primarily by mining their own archetypes and letting the audience just fill in the blanks on their own. Yes, of course Willem Defoe’s character is slightly avuncular with vaguely sinister undertones – that’s what Willem Defoe does. John Wick puts an unusual (and refreshing) amount of trust in the viewer; it provides just enough information for us to work things out, then speeds along secure in the knowledge that we can handle it without overwrought verbiage being forced down our throats. The result is a screenplay which is incredibly lean and populated with characters that are defined entirely by their actions, as Storytelling 101 dictates they should be.
John Wick was arguably the best hard action film of 2014, and that’s an astonishing achievement considering it also saw the release of The Raid 2: Berandal. It’s a clinically efficient picture packed to the gills with sensational action sequences and understated storytelling, and an absolute must-see for genre fans. I’d also like it to be known that I called it when I first saw the trailer, so if you ever needed another excuse to take my word as gospel then there you go.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.