Saturday, August 29, 2015

John Wick

So many action movies today are about comic book superheroes or serve as little more than special effects showcases that a movie like John Wick (2014) is a refreshing throwback: the straightforward revenge plot. Someone has wronged our hero, and he will not rest until those responsible have been eliminated. It's the kind of vigilante justice picture Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood cut their teeth on, and it's served as the setup for countless cult classics.

John Wick has a somewhat larger budget than many of its forebears, and it stars Keanu Reeves as our eponymous hero. Some Russian mobsters steal his car and shoot his dog, after doing a number on him in his own house, and once he recovers, Wick goes on a roaring rampage of revenge (as TV Tropes would put it). Since the dog was the last gift from his late wife and he is a former hitman known as Baba Yaga, or "The Boogeyman," Wick is absolutely merciless in his vengeance.

That's really it for plot. What results is a series of brutal, bone-crunching action scenes in which Wick slaughters pretty much everything thrown his way, whether it be in shootouts or hand-to-hand combat. It's violent and bloody, lots of head shots, snapped necks, and other wince-inducing injuries. Wick fights like a superman, but even he's not immune from injury. After getting stabbed in the side, he gets the wound stitched up and goes back to do what he's got to do. Another character escapes handcuffs by dislocating her thumb.

The action scenes, like the movie as a whole, are refreshingly old school. No fancy kung fu, overblown special effects, or bullet time: just a bunch of people trying to kill each other any way they can. More importantly, even though much of the film's locations is dark and filled with shadows, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch eschew shaky cam and quick cutting, giving us clear views of the action so we can be impressed by the cool fighting moves and stunts.

The movie also has a sense of humor. Similar to Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, a lot of it's based on people reacting to Wick and his reputation. After dispatching a dozen mooks in his home, Wick answers the door and talks with a police officer responding to a noise complaint. The officer sees a couple of bodies, asks Wick whether he's working again, and then nervously tells him he'll leave him be. Wick then calls a professional body disposal business saying he needs a "dinner table table for twelve."

That business is one of a number of details that give John Wick some richness, so it is more than a simple revenge story. It's world building, suggesting there's more to these characters and the setting than just what we see. My favorite element is the hotel run by Winston (Ian McShane) that caters exclusively to assassins and punishes those guests who conduct business at the hotel, something Miss Perkins (Adrienne Palicki) learns the hard way after she accepts a bounty to go after Wick. The hotel is just so cool, HBO or Showtime needs to turn it into a TV series.

Reeves isn't typically thought of as the most expressive of actors, but this is one of his best roles. His way of underplaying a part gives Wick a more deranged edge. One of his best moments is when crime boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, effective), whose son Iosef (Alfie Allen, wonderfully sniveling) is the one who attacked Wick, calls him and tries to talk him out of going after his son; Wick, not saying a word, just listens and hangs up.

The film is also a loaded with a few other familiar faces in brief but memorable roles: Willem Dafore as Marcus, a friend who visits John at his wife's funeral and then is paid to go after him; John Leguizamo as Aurelio, who runs a stolen car operation and punches Iosef when he learns how he got Wick's car (his phone conversation with Viggo when he explains why he punched out the crime boss's son has one of the biggest laughs because Viggo completely accepts the reasoning with a mere, "Oh."); and Kevin Nash as Francis, a mob bouncer whom Wick tells to take the night off, after complimenting him on his weight loss. 

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