Directed by: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch || Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, Michael Witherill
Screenplay: Derek Kolstad || Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan
Music by: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard || Cinematography by: Jonathan Sela || Edited by: Elisabet Ronalds || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes
As I’ve stated numerous times on this site, the American action genre hasn’t been well over this past decade. Ever since the PG-13 sanitation of mainstream blockbusters from the early 2000s onward, hard-hitting cinematic violence made for adults (or put more broadly, genre enthusiasts) has become rarer and rarer in Hollywood. I hold no overly nostalgic, rosy-eyed views of the 1980s and 1990s action canon to be sure, as corny one-liners, terrible miniatures, and ketchup-colored blood squibs abounded in nearly all but the decades’ best; that being said, older action films simply feel more visceral, violent, and unapologetic compared to today’s Taken (2008, 2012, 2015)-esque thrillers.
Action films today can be divided into four rough flavors: CGI-heavy spectacle features (e.g. most superhero films, Transformers [2007, 2009, 2011, 2014], etc.), heavily edited PG-13 spy-thrillers (e.g. the Mission Impossible series [1996, 2000, 2006, 2011], the Bourne series [2002, 2004, 2007], the modern James Bond movies [2002, 2006, 2008, 2012], the aforementioned Taken trilogy), redneck muscle-car features like The Fast and the Furious (2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013), and what I like to call “geriatrics with guns”-throwback flicks, featuring the likes of has-been 1980s stars (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, et al.).
While there are occasional solid releases in all those arbitrarily defined categories, the American action staple as a whole has devolved since the predominately R-rated shoot-em-up days of old, trading gruff one-liners for heavily emasculated, family-friendly dialogue, on-location photography for endless blue-screens, liquid blood squibs for digital ones (or no bloodshed at all), and intense cinematic violence for neutered, PG-13 action sequences. I wouldn’t exactly call East Asian martial arts films like Ong Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior (2003) much of a substitute, but whatever comparison you use, the Hollywood action staple has, for lack of better words, had its fucking balls cut off.
Enter John Wick (henceforth, JW), the directorial debut of Hollywood stuntmen and action choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. These men have worked on action films for years, including with JW star Keanu Reeves on the Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003). Like the Western action genre as a whole, Reeves has been on a career down-slide ever since the smash-success of the Wachowskis‘ Matrix, whose directors have also had a rough time since then. With such recent misfires as Constantine (2005), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and 47 Ronin (2013), I avoided seeing JW in theatres simply based on Reeves’ toxic career of late, and I paid the price.
JW is not only Keanu Reeves’ best film and lead performance since The Matrix, it’s also by far the best American action film since The Matrix, as well. Although the Hollywood action field since that film has largely been a barren wasteland with a few exceptions here and there, the fact I compare JW favorably to the Wachowskis’ baby is a high compliment. JW is a well paced, well written, well edited, well scored, and incredibly well directed action picture that delivers chilling neo-noir crime drama visuals against a foreground of brutal action. JW’s efficient, fluid violence is allowed to flourish without the suffocating PG-13 restrictions that good but censored action pictures like the Bourne movies, The Winter Soldier (2014), and Casino Royale (2006) were forced to endure.
I never thought in a million years I could favorably compare an original 2010s American action flick to my beloved Raid series (2011, 2014) from the Indonesia-based Welshman, Gareth Evans, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. John Wick’s central storyline is streamlined and efficient (like the original Raid) but flaunts a rich, compelling crime universe just beyond its narrative borders, including well constructed, colorful characters (like the second Raid). Though Stahelski and Leitch’s expert direction in conjunction with cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s beautiful visuals are the main stars, here, screenwriter David Kolstad deserves much credit for building such a fascinating universe around the film’s simple protagonist and his straightforward goals. Reeves’ title role isn’t complex, but the numerous supporting figures and the cinematic universe around him are, and their juxtaposition with Reeves’ unstoppable determination is masterful storytelling.
The action itself is well paced and visceral, endowed with Sela’s beautiful neon colors and low-key lighting to create a stylish neo-noir aesthetic. John Wick is more shootout-based than either of the Raid films, but Stahelski and Leitch fluidly intermix close-quarters-combat and firearm stunts a la John Woo’s filmography (e.g. The Killer , Hard-Boiled ). Reeves’ creative “gun-fu” combat style feels both unique and a modernized take on classical Woo bullet-time, best showcased in a fantastic club sequence that serves as the centerpiece of the movie.
Speaking of our star, Reeves is enabled by the script and the film’s direction to succeed from the start. JW is a film where Reeves does much and says very little. Not only is this characterization inherently cinematic, but it plays to Reeves’ natural strengths as an actor. He has never had much of an emotional range as a stoic action star, but he has great timing and a powerful, intimidating screen presence that most wannabe action-stars wish they had. Unlike Willis (59), Stallone (68), or Schwarzenegger (67), Reeves could easily pass for someone in their 30s (in other words, he still looks the part at 50 years of age) and retains the action-muscle memory of his Matrix days.
The only faults with John Wick are some pacing issues toward the end when the film piles too many epilogues and secondary action set-pieces after the main revenge storyline is complete. Other than that, John Wick is a modern American action-extravaganza that’s been sorely missing from Hollywood theatres for the past 15 years. The film oozes cool in ways that most James Bond flicks could only dream of, it boasts a consistent visceral intensity and action-packed violence that only The Raid films have achieved in recent years, and it presents a rich, neo-noir crime universe that’s begging for some franchise expansion. In a day and age where major studios are desperate to bloat Fast and Furious story arcs past seven films and Marvel movies are planned out till 2027, sometimes its the small, chump-budget features that bring the richest flavors and most intriguing canon.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: First-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch take their decade-plus of action choreography and stunt experience to show the rest of the Western world how it’s done. The result is a beautifully constructed, beautifully colored, and beautifully violent action movie experience. Screenwriter David Kolstad creates a fascinating and multi-layered crime backdrop to this otherwise straightforward revenge saga. The story and characterizations are simple where they need to be and complex when necessary.
— However… the film’s multiple epilogues and the extended climax of Reeves’ rampage could be better arranged.
? People keep asking if I’m back, and I haven’t really had an answer, but now, yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!