It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a good action movie, or rather an earnest one. I’m not one to write off a film solely for lack of depth. Some of the most enduring stories in all of literature endure and spread so readily because they paint pictures in very broad and simple strokes. That being said, John Wick is likely to be completely forgotten by all but the most die-hard action fans, but that doesn’t mean for now it isn’t damn entertaining.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman and grieving for the recent loss of his wife. When the son of a crime boss (Alfie Allen) invades his home, steals his car, and kills his dog, John dusts off his tools and begins carving a swath of carnage through the criminal underworld with uncompromising brutality.
The first and most important thing to talk about here is the action. I haven’t seen much of Reeves action work since the first Matrix film, but rest assured he’s still at the top of his game. He’s given plenty of room to stretch here as well. The action sequences are littered with long shots that gives full scope to the levels of destruction he rains down. The settings and music lend an intense tone that would almost extend into the realm of self-parody if this film wasn’t so unapologetically aware of what it is and what it wants to do, which is intense gun ballet. They avoid the mistakes that made the Expendables films terrible and kept the Bourne films from being great rather than just good.
There are brief stretches between these sequences to do some world building, character development, and then get all the pieces in play for the next showdown. This narrative connection tissue is necessary if nothing else to contrast the action and it’s obvious that a lot of consideration went into the details of what each character says and does so we don’t have to spend too much time explaining who they are, their relationships, and what motivates them. Like Wick himself, these move along quickly and effectively.
Reeves has the ability to use physicality and stunt work to build characters the same way other actors use dialogue. Despite a reminiscent fashion sense and a similar capacity for efficient combat, you never once mistake Wick for Neo with a different haircut. He's a distinct character with a distinct (if not somewhat one-note) personality. The way he moves is different from other characters he’s played and other characters in the film, which makes it more believable when he mows through mooks like a Call of Duty speedrunner. The constant impression is that he’s just operating on a different level than everyone around him. This is reinforced in the non-violent scenes as well, as every other character is either terrified at the very mention of Wick’s name, or considered a fool for not being so.
My complaints are minor. We do spend a little too long in the first act setting everything up. The emotional crash course we get on what John Wick has lost is important though. It gives more credence to what he’s willing to do and how much abuse he’s able to shrug off on his quest for vengeance. Also the order of the action scenes is a bit problematic. Considering what he’s been through by the time it's wrapping up, any sense of tension is lost. This would be okay if the last half of the third act had enough emotional intensity to make up for it, but Wick looks like he's just going through the motions at that point.
I rented this because the sequel is currently getting excellent reviews, and I have this strange inability to see any movie in a series unless I’ve seen the preceding films, While I have concluded that following any narrative consistency in John Wick 2 hardly necessitated seeing this one, I do not regret doing so, as I had a great time and it definitely left me wanting more. While by no means deep, John Wick is undeniably solid. Now I have theater tickets to buy.