John Wick is a superb action movie that is completely worth the price of admission if you’re a fan of watching countless nameless minions getting shot repeatedly. Honestly, this review can be summed up in that one sentence. The preview that I saw floating around for the past month or so has been bragging about how this is Reeves’ best film since The Matrix (small praise given the choices, really) but I’ll go one better and say it’s my favorite performance of his to date.
In this movie Keanu plays an emotionless killing machine by the name of John Wick (essentially the same robotic performance he always puts forth), and it’s wonderful. You can play tragic backstory bingo as you’re watching the intro scenes: immensely successful assassin for the mob; check. Managed to get away by accomplishing something terrible; check. Found true love only to have her die of some unfortunate disease; check. Terrible wrong is done to him after he’s lost her that drags him back into the seedy underbelly of society that he thought he’d escaped; check and check. It’s all rather shameless in its setup but for one bit that I’ll talk about in the spoiler section where it gets downright demented.
We launch into the film proper as the inevitable horrible events that lead to the wholesale slaughter play out. The world built here is done immensely well, adhering with almost religious devotion to the “show, don’t tell,” principle of movie making. You might recall that in my Maze Runner review I had a beef with the fact that they showed us plenty but never really made it clear what it meant. Here they demonstrate how much of a difference it makes when the principle is applied correctly… and it’s done with nothing more than a simple gold coin.
Heads up: explosive spoilers ahead!
After reclaiming his history through a good ol’ sledgehammer montage (and while the villain laments that his son was stupid enough to incite the wrath of a man named after a flammable substance), we see a case loaded with weaponry and neatly stacked golden coins. John’s home is then invaded by generic commando units who are swiftly dispatched whereupon he calls an old acquaintance and requests a dinner party for five. A team quickly arrives at his house with all the necessary tools for the removal of human remains and sanitation of any evidence their presence to which John pays the leader with five of his many coins. Throughout the rest of the movie, the coins are used as tools for admission to secret clubs, payment for services, and any activities associated with “The Continental Club” which is a secret society of vague purpose but undeniable coolness.
Willem Dafoe is also present playing the role of, well, Willem Dafoe. He’s a sniper friend who’s been hired to kill John. His scenes are entertaining as always and I really have no complaints, but the only thing that really makes them noteworthy is the fact that he’s the one playing the character. It also permanently linked this movie to Boondock Saints in my mind, which can only be a good thing.
The rest of the characters are pretty stock. There are plenty of generic goons, a mob boss, his worthless child whose stupidity causes the whole mess, Ms. Perkins (the femme fatale who’s pretty much wasted), and, oddly enough, Dean Winters (who you’ll most likely know from Law and Order: SVU or Mayhem from the Allstate commercials) who is playing a generic villain side-kick. There’s absolutely no character development and it doesn’t matter in the least. All that character fluff would only get in the way of the gun fights and each is a thing of beauty. Fights are fast paced, tense, and brutal and I really don’t have much to say beyond that. You should see them for yourself.
The last thing I have to talk about is one of the first scenes in the movie after the flashback montage. It’s not terribly spoilery given that I’m pretty sure they mention it in the trailer, but it is the only real heart wrenching scene, and the only one that I actually had to think about to decide what my feelings on it were. Feel free to head away from the review if you want to form your own feelings about it. The movie’s good and you should see it.
So, that scene.
The trailer makes it obvious that he had a cute puppy and it died, but it doesn’t really lay out just how traumatic the scene really is. Firstly, the dog is courier delivered the day after his wife’s funeral right as John’s trying to come to terms with her passing and it comes complete with a final postcard from beyond the grave read by his wife’s actress telling him to love again. Second, the dog is just about the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. It beats out the cutest kitten memes on the web. Third, you see genuine bonding between John and the puppy, probably the most human behavior you can hope to see from a Keanu Reeves performance. Then the home invasion occurs. It’s brutal, merciless, downright horrifying to watch, and it’s capped off by the puppy dying terribly. Beaten and bloody, John crawls over to the puppy and passes out beside it. I’ve seen a lot of messed up things in my life but that was one of the harshest things I’ve had to watch in my escapist action schlock as opposed to, ya know, real world news.
At first I was honestly a little offended by it. Make no mistake; this is blatant manipulation of the audience’s emotions while simultaneously setting up the film. After you’re likely to want to go out and get a beagle for yourself, but that scene will sour the idea. It took some time for me to be able to accept how necessary it was to the whole film, the helplessness established in this scene cements the total loss of his wife’s death and shatters any humanity left in him. What we see for the rest of the film is a weapon unleashed by tragedy and it’s glorious. It doesn’t make the manipulation any less blatant, but it’s one I find acceptable in this context. That being said, I’ll likely skip that scene during any further viewings because dear lord is it ever screwed up.
Up next week: Big Hero 6.