DirectorChad Stehelski, David Leitch
Release Date(s)2014 (February 3, 2015)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
The revenge opera John Wick is the filmic equivalent of a swift, hard punch to the solar plexus. The subject matter is total guilty pleasure territory, a totally blunt revenge story in which breathtaking action style is essentially the film’s substance. The setup is such: a trio of knuckleheaded Russian gangsters break into John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) house and steal his car and kill his dog, a puppy given to him as a posthumous gift from his recently deceased wife. As it turns out, John Wick is a real bad man, a retired killer-for-hire who promptly digs up his arsenal and hunts them down, murdering them and a huge pile of their flunkies and henchmen in a hail of bullets and unrelenting kinetic violence.
John Wick, however, is more than the sum of its genre parts in some crucial ways, none more important than how Wick is introduced. First, as a grieving husband, then as the hit man who’s not just the boogeyman, but “the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman.” Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name would be proud to call John Wick’s backstory his own (in that sense, this movie did evoke memories of Eastwood’s Outlaw Josie Wales, which effectively deconstructed the Man With No Name by depicting the kind of loss that might have created such a mythic anti-hero).
The other stroke of brilliance is that while the cloud of melancholy that hangs over Reeves’ Wick is for his dead wife he exacts his revenge for the puppy, which lets the audience buy in completely and unabashedly (seriously, this might have been the cutest goddamned puppy in the world). This is clever. If the goons had killed his wife, that’s rather played. If it’s a “one last job” movie, also played. Not only is the puppy angle fresher and quirkier, it invests the audience in Wick achieving his blood-soaked revenge in a way that no other ploy that comes to mind could have. We practically cheer every close-range double-tap to the brainpan, and there are a LOT of those! (I’ve heard Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds described as a Jewish revenge fantasy, so maybe John Wick is the first PETA revenge fantasy.)
Directed by stunt choreographers extraordinaire Chad Stehelski and David Leitch (IMDB them and prepare to be wowed), the action is non-stop and the choreography is an exhilarating, violent and beautiful ballet from beginning to end. It’s refreshingly physical and things happen lightning fast but are portrayed with expert clarity. Continuity is a smidge rough here and there, but I hardly noticed during the first viewing, as the action was way too captivating to get caught up in trivial matters.
Aside from the action, John Wick’s other great success is in creating a fully dimensional mythos of its own; the characters seem to inhabit a strange parallel universe hidden in plain sight. It’s a surprisingly mannered underworld of mobsters and hired killers centered around a plush hotel called the Continental, an underworld with codes and keys and rules all its own. The movie is also punctuated with well timed and unexpected humor- Wick takes a bus ride that makes total sense but other movies would have edited around, and a surprise police visit to Wick’s house, which is littered with dead bodies, is handled in an unexpected way with hilarious but simple dialog.
For all the dazzling technical skill imprinted on every frame of this movie, Reeves’ performance is essential to making this (very) bloody affair work. He has a palpable natural gravity in the way he carries his sadness that’s quiet and comes from the inside out. It’s very affecting. And at 50 years old, Reeves still looks (and moves) like he’s in his 30s and remains a strikingly physical action star. The rest of the casting is stellar and filled with the right familiar faces. Michael Nyqvist, who many will remember from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies, is surprisingly formidable as the Russian mob boss whose son Wick is hunting, and Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane have strong supporting turns. I have to mention David Patrick Kelly just because it’s been a long time and seeing him made me smile.
Excellent picture quality and competent surround sound is more or less a given for a modern action movie, but John Wick’s picture and sound are other level. The image quality is very clean and detailed, with just a touch of softer focus here and there. Filtering provides evocative pastiches of color throughout, and it has rock solid blacks, contrast and shadow detail. The sound is a Dolby Atmos encoded TrueHD track, and it’s a stunner. Tremendous deep bass and aggressive surround immersion at all times, with completely convincing height presence in spite of the fact I did not play this on an Atmos-capable system (more speakers for my theater room is not something that’s on my roadmap now or in the foreseeable future). Not only is the mix a total rush in spatial terms, the quality of the individual sound effects elements is truly excellent. John Wick’s sound isn’t just good it’s special, and yes, the Red Circle club battle is an all-time home theater demo.
A handful of solid featurettes are included, and they’re not the usual EPK tripe; they’re a compelling document of how the movie was made and why it’s something special. There’s a terrific amount of interview time with Reeves who, as it turns out, brought the script to the directors, Stahelski and Leitch. The trailer is there, as is a commentary by directors.
Watching John Wick reminded me of seeing Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix for the first time; not only is the movie a total thrill ride, it feels like something new and exciting, clearly the work of filmmakers I feel compelled to follow. I loved John Wick so much that writing this review and visiting the supplements enticed me into watching it again from beginning to end, just a few days after seeing it for the first time. That never happens! That the picture and sound is executed with the same flawless precision as the movie itself is the icing on this bloody, bold and bad-ass cake. Highest recommendation I can give!
- Shane Buettner