Once upon a time, many moons ago, the American western found itself in dire straits. Movies followed the same regular routine to the point where they began to resemble little more than copies of xeroxed duplicates of toner-based facsimiles reproduced solely to sell the goods. It wasn't until some fresh blood from our Italian brethren was added into the fray - or spilled into the dust, if you prefer - that things started to change; the key ingredient there being violence itself. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before competitors started to repeat the process - choosing to imitate their peers instead of emulating them.
Likewise, the contemporary American action movie has been following the same formula for so long that it's hard to get ten minutes into a flick before one becomes overwhelmed with the sensation that they are essentially rewatching something they have already seen, albeit with a new star. And while John Wick doesn't necessarily offer up a whole hell of a lot of "new" material in terms of its story or even a new face to look at, it's the execution of the title (as well as the many, many executions contained therein) on the whole that breathes some much needed life into an otherwise fading, repetitive genre.
That, and the project was also helmed by two men who are entirely new to sitting in the director's chair: stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. And who better to pluck out of the crowd and place into the captain's chair than two fellows who most assuredly know their business when it comes to minor scuffles to great big bloody shootouts?
In what I think is Keanu Reeves' third coming now, the former lead of The Matrix series (a franchise that started out with something fresh as well, before copying itself to death immediately thereafter) stars as retired assassin John Wick. Wick is a man with impeccable taste in everything from clothes to cars, but who has recently suffered the life-changing loss of his wife, whom he had left the world's second oldest profession to be with only a few short years before. A surprise delivery arranged by his late spouse prior to her departing introduced the grieving widower to a darling, cute, adorable, wuvable wittle puppy.
Naturally, people like John Wick can't have nice things, and a chance encounter with three Russian punks leads the trio of murderous upstarts to Wick's residence late one night. Prior to stealing his cherry '69 Ford Mustang, Wick's unwanted guests rearrange John's furniture a bit, before proceeding to his bearded face and his barely teething companion - the latter of whom does not make it out of the tense situation alive. With the only remaining link to his dearly departed now dearly departed, Wick returns to his old ways (you can't teach an old dog new tricks, I guess?) with his guns-a-blazin' and the industrial soundtrack pulsating away for the better part of a fun two-hour ride into the classic cinematic motif of revenge. There's a debt to paid in blood, and John is determined to get his Wick debt (thank you, Reverend Spooner).
Thankfully devoid of any traces of songs such as "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" or The Monkees' "Gonna Buy Me a Dog", John Wick did not attempt to pull the wool over our eyes even in the film's trailer (which is more than I can say for the teaser I saw before the main feature: a peek at Disney's upcoming Into the Woods adaptation, which conveniently neglects to mention it's a musical). Instead, John Wick gives us exactly what it promised in its advertisements: one very angry, unhappy man setting out to extract his revenge. And the (not completely American-made) production is precisely what the doctor ordered: something that succeeds in being slightly different - even if we have seen it all before.
Mr. Reeves in particular is in fine form here. A mostly silent protagonist, Keanu occasionally unleashes a fair bit of emoting and the irregular deadpan quip (which, thankfully, are not set up or realized in a fashion to make us think we're watching an old Arnold Schwarzenegger film), admirably showing us the many martial arts moves he learned for The Matrix (wherein Chad Stahelski was his stunt double) have not gone to waste over the last fifteen years. A minor highlight for yours truly is a scene where Mr. Reeves struggles with a would-be assassin in his home. During this moment, each performer exchange both blows and a blade in a welcomed, realistic sense that not only does not employ the dreaded shaky cam effect, but is actually filmed in a single, completely still take. Well done there, gentlemen.
Of course, it can't all be sunshine and puppies (sorry), and John Wick's handlers occasionally follow a little too close to the routine of action films. People walking away from exploding fires in slo-mo, editing right out of a music video, etc. But since these minor qualms of my own weren't enough to distract me, they'll surely not bother the average not-so-critical moviegoer. In fact, the only real weak link in the entire film is actress Adrianne Palicki as a killer lass with dyed jet black hair. Much like a small portion of the editing/camerawork in the film, the actress tries too hard throughout all of her scenes. Fortunately, she isn't that major of a character in a production that practically lacks a female presence apart from her own. (Interestingly, Eva Longoria - a much better and actual actress - co-produced the film. It's a pity she couldn't take on the part herself.)
A better-than-average example of "Just look at what you could be doing, Hollywood!" John Wick also features the great Willem Dafoe in a supporting role as another hitman (everyone in the film is a part of the underworld in one way or another; the sole law enforcement agent we see turns a blind eye to the activities in another memorable scene), Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish Richard Dreyfuss) as the Russian mafia kingpin whose idiotic offspring (Alfie Allen) is the cause of the whole barbarous orgy, and Ian McShane as the proprietor of a hotel that caters exclusively to hitmen and the like (wherein a wonderfully cast Lance Reddick is employed).
John Leguizamo (yes, he's still around) has a small part as a stolen car dealer, Dean Winters is Nyqvist's annoyed lawyer, and good ol' bit player Clarke Peters also gets a moment to dress sharp, too, in this nice change of pace action/thriller that will hopefully inspire others to emulate instead of imitate.