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 before on this site, the American action genre hasn’t been the greatest over this past decade. Really ever since the PG-13 sanitization of mainstream blockbusters from the early 2000’s 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 ’80’s and ’90’s action canon to be sure, as corny one-liners, terrible miniatures, and ketchup-colored blood squibs abounded in nearly all but the decades’ best, but that being said older action films simply feel more visceral, violent, and refreshingly 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, including and especially Marvel titles, Transformers [2007, 2009, 2011, 2014]), 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. The latter category is composed of senior citizen has-been action stars from the ’80’s (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis) who continue to make, remake, reboot, or otherwise support and star in painfully embarrassing feature films that seek to recall the former glory and pull-no-punches attitude of decades’ past with increasingly feeble results.
While there are occasionally solid releases in all those arbitrarily defined categories, the American action staple as a whole has clearly devolved since the predominately R-rated shoot-em-up days of old, trading gruff badass one-liners for heavily emasculated family-friendly dialogue, on-location shooting for endless blue-screens, liquid blood squibs for digital ones, and intense no-holds-barred cinematic violence for neutered, PG-13 action sequences. I wouldn’t exactly call Asian kung-fu/CQC 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, the directing debut of prior 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 Wachowski’s Matrix (whose directors have also had a rough time since then as well). With such recent misfires as Constantine (2005), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and 47 Ronin (2013), I was actually turned away from checking out JW in theatres simply based on Reeve’s toxic action career of late, and I paid the price.
In hindsight, I am desperately glad that JW turned a significant profit (it grossed over $78 million on a $20 million budget) and got rave reviews that I blindly ignored. Oh me of little faith…
JW is not only Keanu Reeves’ best film and best 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 that I compare JW very favorably to the Wachowski’s baby is a high compliment. John Wick is a well paced, well written, well edited, and incredibly well directed action picture that delivers chilling neo-noir thrills and beautiful crime drama visuals against a foreground of brutal hitman-action. JW blows you away time and time again with its gritty street shootouts and fluid hand-to-hand combat, its brutal action flowing freely and powerfully in large part because it’s allowed to flourish without the suffocating PG-13 restrictions that similarly great (but noticeably toned down) 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 would be able to favorably compare an original 2010’s American action film to my beloved Raid series (2011, 2014) from Indonesia-based Gareth Evans, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. John Wick’s central storyline is streamlined and efficient (like the original Raid) but effortlessly flaunts a rich, compelling crime universe expanding just beyond its narrative borders and boasts 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. Kolstad’s work here reminds us that the key to most great scripts are simple stories paired with complex characters. Reeves’ John Wick isn’t too terribly complex, but the numerous supporting figures and the cinematic universe around him are, and their juxtaposition with Reeves’ unstoppable determination is masterful storytelling. Kolstad may very well have created the beginnings of a beautiful, multi-layered canonical world that a budding John Wick franchise may soon fill.
Building upon Kolstad’s excellent screenplay are Stahelski and Leitch’s intelligent approach to action choreography, logic, and a magnificent color palette courtesy of Jonathan Sela. Visually, this film is absolutely gorgeous. This is one of the best-looking movies I’ve seen in years in any genre, and all the eye-candy is courtesy of expert lighting, great cinematography, and smart blocking — in other words, good ole-fashioned filmmaking with nary a green (or blue) screen in sight.
The action itself is well paced and visceral. John Wick is more shootout-based than either of the Raid films, but Stahelski and Leitch fluidly intermix close-quarters-combat and “gun-fu” techniques a la John Woo’s filmography (e.g. The Killer , Hard-Boiled ). Reeve’s character’s fighting style is decidedly unique and violently memorable, particularly in a fantastic club scene that serves as the centerpiece of the movie. JW may be one of the most realistic portrayals of hand-to-hand combat ever put to film, as the action is even more subdued and grounded than the judo and silat choreography in The Raid movies, and arguably just as vicious. There’s a surprising amount of grappling involved in several key fight scenes, and watching Reeves work his physical magic is incredibly satisfying. That being said, Reeves’ John Wick is far from unstoppable, and both his emotional and physical vulnerabilities add considerable depth to his character and tension to the action.
Speaking of our star, Reeves is set up by both the script and the film’s direction to succeed right from the start. JW is a film where Reeves does a lot and says very little. Not only is this characterization inherently more cinematic, but it plays to Reeves’ natural strengths as an actor. Reeves has never had much of an emotional range even as a stoic action star, but he has great timing and a powerful, intimidating screen presence that most wannabe action-stars only wish they had. Unlike Willis (59), Stallone (68), or Schwarzenegger (67), Reeves could easily pass for someone in their 30’s (in other words, he still looks the part at 50 years of age) and retains the action-muscle memory and kung fu skills of his Matrix days. Keanu will never embody the soul of a Shakespearean persona, but a potent action star he remains and he has brooding, soulful animosity for days. Not to mention, the possible career rebirth of both Reeves and his titular character are gloriously ironic 😀
The only faults with John Wick are some pacing issues toward the end when the film piles on a few too many epilogues and secondary action set-pieces after the main revenge storyline is complete. Other than that, JW 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 just begging for some franchise expansion. In a day and age where major studios are desperate to bloat Fast and Furious story arcs to 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 as well. John Wick boasts one of the best action casts in years.
— However… the film’s multiple epilogues and the climax of Reeves’ revenge-binge could be arranged better. With action films this good, small pacing problems are ironically even more noticeable.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer, but yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!