They Snuffed His Pooch, Now It’s Time For Payback
John Wick is a preposterous revenge movie, but it revels in its own preposterousness. That makes it difficult to judge this popcorn pleaser, so self-aware of its own limitations and so intent to stylize and shrug at them. You don’t know whether to scoff or take it seriously or just give up. The movie might make you do all three but it really wants you to stop thinking altogether.
The eponymous character, played stoically (as usual) by Keanu Reeves, is a retired hit-man living alone in suburban New Jersey. He left his job to pursue love. Super-abbreviated flashbacks haphazardly illustrate five years with his wife (Bridget Moynahan), who eventually falls ill and dies. It is the most graceful death this movie has to offer. After a grim burial, Wick receives a beagle puppy in the mail, sent posthumously by his wife so that he won’t have to grieve by himself. The gift pushes down an ugly set of dominoes.
Soon enough three Russian baddies, led by a punk named Iosef (Alfie Allen), break into Wick’s home, batter his bones, murder his pup, and steal his Mustang. The next morning Wick scrubs his blood from the floor and stares angrily into the camera. These sadistic buffoons have just awakened a mythical killer. For the next 90 minutes, the bodies pile up, nameless entities earning bullet holes and knife wounds and other unfortunate injuries for an ignoble cause. Iosef’s protective father and mob boss Viggo (a convincing Michael Nyqvist) contracts these hordes of killers, but even he comically knows he’s contracting them to die. He knows his son is in trouble.
David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are stuntmen making their directorial debuts here. Derek Kolstad, responsible for penning a Dolph Lundgren movie, is credited with the script. These aren’t critiques so much as disclaimers. The gunshots and scissor-precise gore builds up to dialogue and then returns back to bloody mayhem. But at least this is choreographed intelligently. There is no shaky-camera work. When Wick faces his first test, surrounded by a dozen perpetrators inside his home, you see him snipe and slam out of it in fluid motion. This is Uma Thurman fending off the Crazy 88’s in a darkly lit mansion. A police officer knocks on the door with a noise complaint. “Just sorting stuff out,” Wick tells him. “I’ll let you get back to it,” he replies for a laugh.
You enjoy movies like this when you know your hero enjoys them. When Liam Neeson growls at humanity and Denzel Washington puts on his fake grin, you know they’ve hit their sweet spot. It’s hard to tell if Reeves is enjoying it. It’s mostly his character’s flaw. He looks good. He wears a black three-piece suit, greasy long hair, and straddles his vehicles like a car commercial. Between a few muttered sentences, he only speaks through movements, prowling to heavy electric guitar and drums, circling his prey, then going in for the kill. This is his third large production since 2008 after Man of Tai Chi and 47 Ronin and you sense, at age 50, Reeves is straining to make one last impression. It’s a good one, but the material doesn’t help his cause.
The movie thinks that its clichés will cancel each other out but you quickly lose count of them. Kolstad doesn’t know how to transition from scene to scene and Leitch and Stahelski have trouble finding any solid solutions, using helicopter shots over Manhattan for temporary serenity. Those stitch together generic set pieces in a trippy nightclub, an orthodox church, and back alleys, watching Wick find danger and then mercilessly dispose of it. He gets some help from a prophetic double-crossing assassin (Willem Dafoe) and car dealer (John Leguizamo) while eluding another paid killer named Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).
This primarily happens as he stays in a secretive assassins hotel, a safe house for the city’s bounty hunters with a “no bullets” policy. It’s a clever touch to a movie that isolates itself from the realities of any higher authorities or mass-murdering implications. The killing business is apparently a booming one, evidenced in each character’s finely spaced mahogany homes and cabinets of rifles. Maybe they just look bigger on IMAX. A smaller screen might expose the ordinariness of these expensive interiors just like this movie’s absurd ending exposes the fragility of the revenge genre when it’s in the wrong hands.
At one point, as Wick begins his final descent upon Iosef, he gets a warning from Viggo. “They know you’re coming,” he tells him. “It won’t matter,” says Wick. It’s the kind of signature line you wait for in one of these violent movies. You just wish it stood for something more.