It’s the tried-and-true formula of one last job/heist/assignment. A longtime bad guy leaves the life of crime in pursuit of peace and quiet, but naturally gets dragged back to his old haunts and habits to settle a final score. But John Wick breathes exhilarating life into this tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves.
John Wick transports us into the underworld that exists beneath society – a world that legendary hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) thought he escaped when he retired to a happy life with his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). However, when Helen falls victim to cancer John’s happy world begins to collapse – only to be bolstered by the introduction of a little puppy, a final gift from his wife to help him keep in touch with his softer, more humane side.
Time likely would’ve healed all if not for the arrogance and brutality of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), a young Russian mob prince who happens upon John and cruelly snuffs out the last vestige of Helen’s love. Of course, poor Iosef has no idea whom he has wronged; no idea about John’s ties to the Tarasov family or the biblical repercussions of messing with the legend. But Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) knows all too well what kind of maelstrom of death is coming – and he makes any and all preparations possible to bring John Wick down.
And there is your movie. It’s that simple, and almost hilarious how simple the premise is. Despite that, it works! God help me, it works so well! Once the premise is established in the script from Derek Kolstad, it’s scene after scene of Wick taking out entire rooms full of people who are foolish enough to stand in his way. This is not exactly a complicated genre from a narrative perspective.
But directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch–who work as a filmmaking team, although Leitch technically takes producing credit–are both veteran stuntmen who clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to this kind of balletic action.
beyond the exquisite brutality they put on display, they’ve also got an eye for artistry, with cinematographer Jonathan Sela helping convey an ominous sense of underworld suspense. Early scenes are so crisply desaturated, they look black and white, from the cloudy, rainy skies over Wick’s wife’s funeral to his head-to-toe wardrobe to his sleek, slate-gray Mustang. As Wick begins to re-immerse himself in the criminal world he’d escaped, other scenes pop in their vibrancy–the deep green of a secret, members-only cocktail bar, or the rich red of a Russian bad guy’s shirt under an impeccably tailored suit.
In the end, John Wick is a silly, violent, action fantasy that fully entertains as such. This is not awards-worthy cinema, nor does it aspire to be; it’s a fun, mindless, action movie experience that manages to surprise with richness of world-building and mythos. By the end, the film earns more franchise potential than many other properties hoping to build empires before they can even get out of the gate. For Reeves this is another big win and iconic character on his resume – one that many will likely leave the theater hoping to see kick ass and takes names again in the future.