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John Wick (2014) Review

John Wick was directed by Chad Stahelski (Serenity, Rock Star) and David Leitch (Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2), written by Derek Kolstad (Nobody, Die Hart), and stars Keanu Reeves (Man of Tai Chi, The Matrix Resurrections), Michael Nyqvist (A Hidden Life, Slim Susie), Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones, Elizabeth), Willem Dafoe (Dead for a Dollar, Bad Country), Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, Agents of SHIELD), Dean Winters (Oz, Palmer), Daniel Bernhardt (Hell Hath No Fury, Skylines), John Leguizamo (Vanishing on 7th Street, Violent Night), Ian McShane (Deadwood, John Wick: 3), and Bridget Moynahan (Blue Bloods, Coyote Ugly). It follows a retired hitman as he takes up his mantle once more – this time for a more personal reason.

The Plot: In a somewhat rare choice for a film, Kolstad actively avoids creating something new in the narrative department, instead opting to develop a world in which it takes place. With plenty of small moments that let the visuals and allusions do the talking, the familiarity of the story matters very little.

Still recovering from the recent death of his wife Helen (Moynahan), John (Reeves) receives a slight morale boost via a posthumously sent puppy named Daisy that should be the start of a rebound – but it’s far from that. The script doesn’t waste time with extraneous threads, with a strict focus on revenge making up almost the entirety of the feature. That revenge is brought on by Iosef (Allen) when he destroys what was left of John’s personal life. Crucially, Stahelski and Leitch don’t overplay the damage, but let the audience know that what they didn’t see was devastating.

While celebrating his newfound vehicle, Iosef’s father, a mobster named Viggo (Nyqvist) prepares for an onslaught from the victim after learning about what he’d done through Aurelio (Leguizamo), advising Iosef to do the same. It’s a different take on the revenge formula, as the criminal underworld already knows what’s going to happen, with Winston (McShane), the head of an assassin’s guild of sorts, advising John to take care.

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Destruction is an inevitability, though, as Iosef continues on, only with bodyguard Kirill (Bernhardt) over his shoulder. Of course, there are attempts to stop the process via putting out a contract for other assassins like Marcus (Dafoe) and Perkins (Palicki), and more bodyguards like Avi (Winters) – but John Wick is a picture dead set on its goals.

More emphasis is put on the organization of the underworld, with idiosyncratic payment methods, rules of engagement, and various businesses all attended to, but it works to enlighten the audience more than any formula picture requires.

The Characters: Another interesting choice is made with the linkage of the characters. It’s not so much that they do know each other, it’s because none of them want to remember each other.

John is the definition of a one-track-minded hero. He’d been a hired killer for a long time, but as soon as he saw an opportunity to move forward with Helen, he retired to a quiet home. It’s vividly illustrated just how attached he was to Helen – and later to Daisy – with his bloodiness not concerning him until he learns who was responsible. What makes him different than numerous other screen killers is his near silence. He’s just as efficient with his words as he is with combat and needed an actor skilled with such an emotionally wrecked yet still menacing character, which fits Reeves to perfection.

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Antagonistic forces are fairly simple, but Kolstad still wrote them with enough dubiousness and venom to make them memorable. Viggo isn’t exactly a principled man, as he deals with various trades like money laundering and car boosting, but he has his limits on who and what to trouble. Seeing as he employed John at least once, he knows what’s coming, and shows more personality when he puts his son in harm’s way before himself, even though he tried to stop the chaos before it truly started. Iosef is a bit one-note in his sneering attitude and belief that he’s invulnerable, but Allen keeps him from being a caricature.

Supporting characters represent an unexpected highlight in John Wick, with plenty of valuable character actors adding flavour to their killer, associate, and management parts. Marcus is a peer of John’s, showing up to Helen’s funeral to send condolences, making room for audience suspicion, Perkins is a hotheaded black widow, and Aurelio is a wary worker who wants no part in any of this. None of this sounds inspired on paper, but through wonderful acting and rigid writing, everyone leaps off the page ably.

The Action: Being directed by two former stuntmen pays dividends for John Wick’s action scenes, which are unique within themselves and when compared to most other action films ever produced. Everything is slick and tactical, yet theatrical and brutal.

First impressions about the titular character’s capabilities are talked up for 20 minutes, making the debut sequence an important one, and it delivers. Right before John starts working his way to Iosef and Viggo, his house is invaded by their underlings, but they’re little match for a man who hardly misses, is able to combat roll and take down two enemies at the same time and outdo a man by repeatedly stabbing him with a knife while they’re both using it. It’s an impressive showcase that leaves the audience wanting more.

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Various locations become settings for fights, like a nightclub in which the hero tries to sneak in by drowning a guard in a sink and goes for the neck of others, but this results in a long-winded sequence in which he takes as much damage as he gives, and a fight immediately after inside the Continental Hotel – Winston’s headquarters – where he has to deal with Perkins wrestling around a restricted area and a sniper’s distant potential. Stahelski and Leitch refuse to let up on John, keeping the ball rolling until he finds Iosef.

Sins of the father and all that. The largest battle comes as the final act, where the movie shows off all its tricks like the immaculate choreography by the team at 87Eleven show their skills in instances like a multi-man brawl while John is tied to a chair, a derby-like vehicular showdown, and the necessary one on one fight with Viggo. It’s all great work, shot clearly and without fuss, and stylistically unique.

The Technics: Being stuntmen/coordinators doesn’t sound like it would translate to finding a directorial style for the movie in between those scenes, but Stahelski and Leitch did a fantastic job for John Wick, which is a shared first outing.

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Because the script, for all of its quirks (expect plenty of veiled dialogue) and quality, is essentially a formula action outline, striking a good pace was virtually required. Editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir (Shang-Chi, Inhale) was up to the task, maintaining a healthy level of character and plot development for the first 30 minutes before creating a blisteringly swift revenge odyssey for the remaining 65. Notably, the artistic merit of the feature isn’t lost in the madness, with a series of cuts showing John using a sledgehammer to don his gear once more being mixed with Viggo’s description to Iosef a highlight of the feature.

A slick wardrobe, plenty of modern weaponry, and upper-class location give the movie a distinct neon noir appearance, shot smoothly and in full colour by Jonathan Sela (The Lost City, Powder Blue). The cinematographer doesn’t shroud the action or the emotion, which is all action fans really want. Some drawbacks are present, such as the odd inclusion of a framed narrative and a lot of CG blood, but for a low to mid-budget debut, it’s no big deal.

John Wick doesn’t reinvent the revenge plotline, but it does invent a terrifically engaging world and a style of its own, along with an already top-tier hero to place with Rambo, Dutch, McClane, and Ripley. Revenge rarely gets sweeter.

John Wick is available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K and Digital via Lionsgate. You can check out the franchise’s website and Facebook page. And if you’re looking for something to hold you over until the inevitable Part 5, FilmTagger can help.

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