Where there’s a Wick there’s a way.
Two things out of the chute: 1) Keanu Reeves is a deeply underrated action star and I’m thrilled he’s getting some burn and 2) it’s great to see an emphasis on practical, grounded mayhem in a Hollywood production.
If you sense a “having said that” coming, then your cynical Internet instincts serve you well. Because, having said that, John Wick has been sort of overrated. I suspect action movie aficionados are so desperate for CGI-free/light-on-the-hyper-edits bad-assery that when something decent like Wick checks those boxes, the reaction swings a bit too far in the other direction.
But just a bit. Because once the gun smoke has cleared and the corpses have been wheeled out on the coroner’s gurney, John Wick is still a fairly bad-ass little movie and something not to be missed by anyone calling him or herself an action fan.
It starts out quietly enough. Wick (Reeves, The Matrix) is a solitary man, grieving after the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan, I, Robot). A bit of daylight penetrates his bleak existence when a new puppy shows up at his doorstep, the parting gift from his beloved. As he struggles to put his life back together, he falls victim to the random attack from an obnoxious son of a Russian mobster. Unfortunately for the kid–and everyone under his father’s employ–Wick was the wrong guy to mess with.
In his previous life he was a hitman so feared, so lethal he was “who you sent to kill the Boogeyman.” Those are the mob boss’s words and he knows that blood-soaked can of bloody worms covered in blood has been opened. What ensues is an all-out war between a vengeance-crazed Wick and every henchman with a sidearm and an unnaturally inflated opinion of his reflexes within a 30-mile radius.
That weirdo set-up actually works a lot better than you think. The puppy-as-motive dynamic, as goofy as it may sound, pays off in a big way and you will be down with John Wick’s blitzkrieg. Which is good, because sans an emotional driver (as modest as it may be), Wick would be a shallow bullet-hell. Things, of course, spiral out of control, so the dog-revenge grows into something more robust, but to get the violence spilling forth believably, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (former stunt guys) have crafted a satisfying launch-pad.
When the boosters fire it’s no looking back. The film races forward with very little downtime as Wick finds himself in a variety of violent confrontations, nearly all of which are brutal, visceral and well-executed. The action beats are varied: gun/judo (gudo?)face-offs, one-on-one MMA bouts, full-scale nightclub shootouts, car chases and a rainy-night final fight. Reeves shows off his chops, doing many of his own stunts, which allows the cameras to keep the action in front of the audience. Stahelski and Leitch keep the havoc rooted and realistic (as realistic as the prospect of a lone man single-handedly decimating a Russian mob can be) and spice up the narrative with some cool touches, like an assassins-only hotel and side-story featuring Willem Dafoe as an aged hitman.
It’s all great fun and slick as all get-out, but two big things prevent me from exalting John Wick as a true action masterwork. One: despite the steady flow of nifty fights, there’s no signature set-piece, nothing I’d cue up to blow someone’s mind (including the final battle, a sad wet fart of a final fight). Two: this isn’t fair, but in a post-Raid 2 world, it’s a whole lot harder to electrify the genre. This comparison doesn’t make a John Wick a failure, not even close, but it’s just a lot harder to do call it anything much more than solid action movie.
Terrific Blu-ray, though. Summit has put out a technical showcase, kicking off with a razor-sharp 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, augmented by a highly aggressive, hyperactive Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. The result: an early candidate for Reference Disc of 2015. Bonus materials are featurette-heavy (six in all), but they’re all worth your time. My favorite is “Don’t F*#% with John Wick,” an in-depth look at Keanu Reeves’ preparation for the role, the depth and physicality of which were truly impressive. An audio commentary rounds out the offering.