Benjamin has been reviewing films for sixteen years and has seen more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
John Wick is an action thriller film released in 2014 and was co-directed by Chad Stahelski and an uncredited David Leitch, the directorial debut for both. The film concerns a recently widowed ex-hitman who comes out of retirement to seek revenge on some Russian hoodlums who stole his car and killed his dog, his last remaining link to his wife. The film stars Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen and Adrianne Palicki. The film is influenced by several earlier films such as Point Blank and John Woo's The Killer as well as The Matrix, where Stahelski and Leitch worked as stunt doubles alongside Reeves. The film was a critical success with many calling Reeves' performance the best for a long time and the film went on to earn just shy of $89 million worldwide. It was followed by a sequel in 2017 and a third film, currently scheduled for release in May 2019.
What's it about?
Shortly after his wife Helen dies of a terminal illness, John Wick receives a puppy as per her instructions to help John through the grieving process. They quickly bond and spend their days driving around New York in John's 1969 Ford Mustang, a car that catches the attention of a small group of Russian gangsters at a filling station. Their leader, Iosef Tarasov, offers to buy the car but John refuses to sell. That night, John is followed home by the Russians who break in to his home. They knock John out, steal his car and kill the dog.
Iosef attempts to have the vehicle's registration changed at a local chop shop run by Aurelio, who recognises the car and refuses to help. When John arrives looking for his car, Aurelio tells him that the thief is the son of Viggo Tarasov - the head of a Russian crime syndicate in New York. Conversely, when Viggo learns that his son has stolen John's car, he tells Iosef who exactly John Wick is - a former hitman of legendary status who will stop at nothing to have his revenge...
Release Date (UK)
10th April, 2015
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to like?
Action movies aren't anything new but finding a really good one can be tricky. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons why John Wick could have failed - this is little more than a straight-up revenge thriller with an indestructible hero blowing away dozens of anonymous baddies and it's foolish to suggest otherwise. But the film is a real winner. Combining a film-noir style with plenty of gun-fu action that's more than a little reminiscent of The Matrix, the film's simplistic narrative takes on a more epic feel. The film also hints at a larger world with the Continental Hotel offering a safe haven for members of the criminal fraternity as well as an extensive backstory for Wick, giving just enough of a clue to reveal just how bad-ass he actually is. I also liked the use of gold coins, giving this story a sense of history as well.
Reeves, for the most part, is his usual impassive self but that doesn't really surprise. What does are the little comic touches here and there he drops in such as his interaction with Charon the concierge at the Continental. His performance isn't the only great one - Nyqvist acts as the polar opposite of Wick with his colourful suits and lack of physical power, preferring to let his words do the talking. Allen is good as the spoilt brat unaware of how much danger he's in and the rest of the supporting cast led by McShane and Dafoe are also very good. The only disappointment was Palicki who felt too similar to her character in TV's Agent Of SHIELD.
But the film tells most of its story through the action scenes, which are plentiful and brilliantly shot. Remember the first time you saw Taken with Liam Neeson suddenly appearing as the baddest man of the planet? It's the same here. John Wick is a film that will reward even seasoned action fans like myself with its well-choreographed shoot-outs, driving sequences and brutal, bloody action with bodily fluids running down walls everywhere. It's been a long time since I've been so impressed by your run-of-the-mill action film but this film really packs a serious punch to make it stand out from its many competitors.
- Although the film was co-directed by Stahelski and Leitch, the Director's Guild Of America ruled that only Stahelski would receive a sole credit. Leitch was credited as a producer instead while Stahelski forfeited his producer credit.
- Reeves only memorised the nightclub shoot-out on the day of filming. This was despite suffering from flu and having a temperature of 104° degrees Fahrenheit, according to the director commentary.
- Not only did the film reunite Reeves with his stunt double Stahelski and Leitch from The Matrix but cast members Daniel Bernhardt (henchman Kirill) and Randall Duk Kim (the hotel's doctor) also appeared in the trilogy.
- The character John Wick appeared as downloadable content for the videogame Payday 2 to promote the film. The game also features Lance Reddick playing a character called Charon as well as a number of masks of former US presidents, a reference to Point Break which also starred Reeves.
What's not to like?
My only real gripe is that the film lacks any sort of ambition. The action scenes, however great they may be, don't really offer much that we haven't seen dozens of times already. Nightclub shoot-outs and gun battles in black SUVs pop up with alarming regularity these days although rarely as well as they appear here. Even the church sequence seemed as though I'd seen it before somewhere. Having said that, I applaud the film for not going down the same path the equally adrenaline-fuelled Crank did which would have seen John Wick descend into absolute silliness.
Other than Palicki's overly familiar character (which isn't her fault), I'm struggling to think of something I didn't like. On a personal level, I'm not sure Reeves is the best actor to portray a man going through mourning. As someone who has recently lost their wife to illness, I know how painful and difficult the feeling can be - it genuinely feels like a hole in your chest and your brain is scrambled trying to process what has happened. Frankly, I'd have been flabbergasted if Reeves had been able to portray that on screen but other than a few tears when Daisy the puppy turns up, he's the same stony-faced guy we've come to expect. Speaking of the puppy, animal rights people might feel a bit queasy when the dog dies - it happens off-screen thankfully but the sound effects make it worse somehow.
Should I watch it?
John Wick is a great action film, coming out of nowhere and sweeping you up in its brutal tale of revenge and redemption. Not since Taken has a film reinvigorated an actor's career like this and after so many years, it's fantastic to see Reeves once again kicking all kinds of ass the way we know he can. It's not the most original or inspiring of narrative but when the action is as good as this, it doesn't really matter so much. Loved it.
Great For: action fans, Keanu's career, fans of The Matrix
Not So Great For: dog lovers, date nights, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
If anything, John Wick: Chapter 2 delivers even more fast-paced action as well as expands the secret criminal world these characters inhabit - which makes me very keen to catch it soon. Whether the forthcoming third film (at time of writing) can maintain such levels of action remains to be seen but I expect it will be fun finding out.
The origins of 'gun fu' can be traced back to John Woo who has turned it into something of a trademark of his. 1986's A Better Tomorrow was where he first used the style with leading man Chow Yun-fat and when Woo moved to America, the style came with him. From the likes of Equilibrium and Wanted to Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service, it shows no signs of declining in popularity any time soon but that's a good thing as far as I am concerned. Lastly, anyone looking for an action film in a hotel that caters exclusively to bad guys might be interested in Hotel Artemis which was released in the UK this very week (July 2018). It's not as good but the concept is a fascinating one nonetheless.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on July 22, 2018:
Absolutely. Neeson has effectively been remaking 'Taken' with every release since 2008. And to think I though what Keanu does best was say "Whoa!" in every film he's in.
Sam Shepards from Europe on July 22, 2018:
One of the better action movies in recent years. The sequel is also very good, it didn't suffer like the taken sequels...
Every Liam Neeson action movie of the past decade looks like a sequel on taken... and mostly not the good kind.
Nice to see Keanu doing what he does best...