In this post-Taken landscape many films have tried to emulate what made that film about a guy with a particular set of skill work, and pretty much all of them haven’t come close to it (especially the laboured sequels). So, when a film is announced which will see a retired hitman seeking revenge against those who stole his car and killed his puppy, you would be forgiven if you initially laughed and then dismissed the whole idea as ridiculous. With first time director who was previously a stunt-man things got worse. Then the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead role was the perfect finishing touch to confirm the film would be a disaster. However, against such odds, John Wick instead defied all expectations to be one of the best revenge thriller films since Old Boy (the original adaptation, not the reasonably good remake).
John Wick, played by Reeves in cold and calculated mode, retired from his profession as a hitman for the underworld in order to settle down with the woman he loved. Five years on, his wife passes away and part of her will gifts him a puppy for him to care for and help with his grief. Unfortunately the son of a Russian mob boss, Iosef (Alfie Allen, who most will recognise from his role as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) takes a liking to John’s car (a 69 Mustang, so you can understand the desire) and decides to steal it, not knowing who the owner is. During the theft Wick is beaten and left lying next to the corpse of his puppy, and thus begins his return to his former self as he sets about tracking down those who stole from him and killed his dog.
What works so well in this film is that at the start we, the audience, have no idea of the reputation Wick has. Much like Iosef, we dismiss him as a quiet, unassuming guy who poses no threat. It is as the revenge plays out and we see the reactions of those who he worked with and for that we start to understand why taking anything from him was a bad idea. Over the course of the film, Wick goes from reluctantly seeking retribution, to fully embracing his old lifestyle, and seemingly enjoying the hunt and the kill. Reeves, who can rarely be called anything other than an average actor, is perfect in the role as his cold, blank, emotionless expression matches the dark nature of John Wick. In addition, the action (and there is plenty of it) benefits from Reeves’ years of training since he worked on The Matrix, and the director Chad Stahelski worked as a stunt coordinator on those films along with David Leitch who is uncredited as a co-director on this film. Well choreographed action that doesn’t resort to fast cuts and close up shots is refreshing to see these days, and the swift and brutal violence is sometimes poetic to watch.
The support cast lend well to the proceedings, with Michael Nyqvist as Viggo, the head of the Russian mob, particularly standing out. His previous knowledge and admiration for Wick makes it almost seem like the character is choosing between two sons when he has to decide whether to allow Wick to complete his revenge. Throw in the likes of Willem Dafoe as a sniper who worked closely with Wick in the past, Adrianne Palicki as a hired assassin, and Ian McShane as Winston, the owner of the Continental hotel (a safe zone for all agents and assassins where business is conducted without threat), and a script that knows when to drop some subtle humour to break the tension, and the result is a tightly plotted and well woven revenge piece in the style of Hong Kong action films such as A Better Tomorrow, or The Killer.
John Wick is a fine example of why Reeves shouldn’t be dismissed because of flops of recent years, and also shows that there is still life in the revenge thriller despite how dull other franchises have made it out to be. The only disappointment is that in the UK we had to wait 6 months after the US release to finally get to see it.