Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Released in 2014
John Wick is the best action movie of the year and living, throbbing proof that great directing can enrich just about anything. The auteurs responsible are Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two veteran stunt actors whose talents perfectly suit Derek Kolstad’s terse screenplay and testify to the artistic imperative of getting more men and women of their training behind the camera. They do not just choreograph and shoot action scenes with preternatural intelligence and grace — really, only Snowpiercer from this year comes close, and forget anything from Marvel — but they also toe the line in depicting violence as both a beautifully intricate and deeply inhuman act.
Keanu Reeves stars as the man with the flammable name, and sure enough it doesn’t take long for him to go off. In the opening minutes, his wife dies from cancer, and the only respite from his grief arrives in a pet carrier — an adorable beagle and special note wait inside. Just as normalcy creeps back into John’s life, a trio of Russian thugs, led by Iosef (Alfie Allen), break into his house to beat him up, steal his ’69 Mustang and, you guessed it, kill that poor puppy. That is more than enough to let him loose, for John turns out to be equipped with a particular set of skills, skills that make him a nightmare for people like Iosef and the New York-based crime syndicate run by his father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, fantastic). One of the film’s biggest laughs, among many, comes at the precise moment, via a reaction shot, when Viggo realizes who his son has messed with.
Unlike sadist pulp like Game of Thrones — whose Theon Greyjoy plays Iosef — John Wick does not linger on the dog slaying or any of the ensuing deaths after: I was surprised how quick they passed, how Stahelski and Leitch knew they would land an R-rating and yet still showed restraint. While the carnage can rightfully be described, and praised, as insane, the style that frames it is, by today’s standards, anything but. Good luck trying to spot any discernible CGI, which likely was used to add bullet holes and entry wounds but not to, say, topple buildings or disfigure characters beyond belief, à la Only God Forgives. With their focus on blocking, lighting and capturing gunplay for maximum coherence, Stahelski and Leitch emerge with entertainment that doubles as art, by sheer virtue of its formal excellence.
This excellence carries over to scenes of dialogue, which the directors fill with as much dynamic and telling character business as possible. When Viggo meets Iosef for the first time since learning of his attack on John, the stern father walks toward his son with a tumbler of brandy in his hand. Instead of just handing it to him, Viggo walks deliberately into his son’s space so he must amble backwards, cowed by his father’s gestures but, at that point, oblivious as to why. Then he delivers a punch straight to the gut. This is not a dumb movie: The psychology of these characters is there, just left unspoken and embedded in the way they move.
John Wick also deals exposition without ever treating it like exposition, or at least how we have come to expect it to be with the ubiquity of origins stories these days (The upcoming Kingsman: The Secret Service might as well throw in the towel now). Reeves’ protagonist has a history in this world of crime, we learn, but Stahelski and Leitch translate that history and that world through spaces, nods, smiles. After dispatching a dozen masked hitmen with startling ease, John answers a silhouette lit by red-and-blue lights at his front door. “Hi Jimmy,” John greets the cop. “You working again?” Jimmy asks, peering past John at a corpse splayed across his foyer. “No, I’m just sorting stuff out,” John replies, to which Jimmy is content and says, “Okay John, good night.”
This criminal underworld of codes, corruption and gold coins belongs in an art movie like Blue Velvet, but the sobriety with which the filmmakers explore it here carries a pretty clever critique of capitalism. Elites in the assassin business, played by Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Clarke Peters (The Wire), welcome John back into The Continental, a criminal racket that fronts as luxury hotel, with grins, and they are actually sincere. So long as you stick to “the code,” which means following through with your word and withholding all feeling. John, in his machine-like way of killing and assuring no collateral damage, proves to be the apotheosis of this code and therefore its perfect enemy. Near the end, Viggo laughs at John’s umpteenth return from the grave, and it is a laugh at his own collusion in John’s perfection.
But John Wick is not a great movie because it has meaning — this so-called commentary is all incidental. It is great because it is some of the richest cinema my eyes have enjoyed this year. The music slays, too, like when Kaleida’s “Think” bops on the soundtrack while John slowly plunges a knife into a dude’s chest. I struggle to think of another movie with such a dire look at humanity that I so eagerly look forward to seeing again.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.