I remain impressed – and a little perplexed – by filmmakers who choose to title their productions with nothing more than a person’s name. It’s not like there isn’t a storied history of such films doing well – Ben Hur, anyone? – but it strikes me as requiring some serious self-belief to throw a film into the cinemas with a title that tells the audience essentially nothing about it. After all, who the hell is John Wick?
John Wick, as it turns out, is an unapologetic cliché in a world of clichés – a hyper-competent ex-hitman driven to violent vengeance after a Russian mob boss’s useless son steals his car and kills his dog. Those two syllables – John Wick – are weaponised, striking fear or respect into those who hear them. When we see the man, played by Keanu Reeves, in action, we see why. He’s an artist with a pistol, who deals death with precision and without remorse.
Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background, and it shows. John Wick’s action scenes are crisp, carefully choreographed and primarily defined by practical special effects and stuntwork (on the latter note, I was particularly impressed by stunt-driving scenes which make a point of zooming in on Reeves’ face – either the dude can drive or their CGI doppelgängerery is top-notch). The cinematography is precise and thoughtful; the careful use of blacks and sparing application of colour reminded me of Deakins’ work in Skyfall.
Revenge films aren’t known for their robust storylines, and this one is no different. John Wick is more interested in staging sharp action sequences to a thumping soundtrack (a mix of blues rock, EDM and a new Marilyn Manson track), with intermittent barbs of ultra-dry humour. That humour isn’t at the film’s expense, though; the script is, as mentioned, wholly conventional, but there’s nary a post-modern wink to be found. Those looking for a down-the-line revenge film will not be disappointed.
That said, revenge films tend to be about something: the difficulty of veterans adjusting into ‘civilised’ society, perhaps, or an unintentionally revealing glimpse into the concentrated fascism lurking beneath America’s obsession with militaristic violence. John Wick is about death. Death is to be expected in this sort of film – vengeance is incited by death and begets the same – but Wick’s orgy of destruction is meted out as a kind of grieving process, a reaction to his wife’s unexpected death and the subsequent annihilation of any chance of hope or peace.
It may be a stretch to search for insight into death from a film whose body count must surely stretch into the triple digits as scores of faceless henchmen are left lifeless in Wick’s wake. And I’ll concede that its ruminations on the subject are hardly nuanced. But there’s intentionality here if you look for it. The way early shots in a cemetery are framed so that the seemingly endless rows of gravestones grow into solemn skyscrapers, or the import of the final shot (specifically, its location).
I don’t want to oversell the film. John Wick is no profound statement on the human condition; it’s merely a kick-ass revenge film executed with craft and care… not to mention a timely reminder that you don’t fuck with puppies or Keanu Reeves will fucking murder you.