REVIEW: John Wick (2014)

Cal finally catches up with Keanu Reeves’ bloodthirsty return to action cinema. Is it an instant genre classic?

Let’s not mince words here: John Wick is the best action movie of 2014.

Confidently belying its modest budget, the movie easily surpasses the year’s CGI-infested blockbusters and superhero offerings, and even tops more old-school actioners like The Equalizer and Fury. Here is a lean, adrenaline-charged 100-minute thrill ride which understands economical storytelling, disposing of superfluous narrative tangents to focus on what matters. John Wick is a B-movie at heart and, on the surface, may look like an unremarkable straight-to-video endeavour, but the execution is flawless, with miraculously choreographed action scenes and exceptional stunt-work elevating this brutal revenge flick into the stratosphere. Add to this a spot-on performance from Keanu Reeves, an R-rating and a well-judged screenplay, and this is a fucking badass movie. It’s pure ecstasy that action fans will go gaga over.

A retired underworld assassin for the Russian mafia, John Wick (Reeves) tragically loses his wife to cancer, but she leaves him one last gift: a puppy for companionship. As John struggles to work through the grieving process, his life is thrown into turmoil again when his classic car is stolen and his pup is killed by Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of powerful Russian kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Learning of his idiot son’s actions, Viggo immediately realises that his entire operation is now under threat of being obliterated by the most dangerous man alive, and tries to come to a peaceful arrangement with John. However, John is focused on retribution, prompting Viggo to call in as many heavily armed men as he can to take down the killing machine as quickly as possible.

John Wick is one of the purest action flicks of recent years, but its taut disposition doesn’t mean that plot is neglected. On the contrary, the action-free opening act is a masterpiece of economy, establishing Wick’s character and situation mostly through images rather than words. But once Wick is wronged and the beast is unleashed, the flick roars to life and the result is something to behold. Too many action movies are bogged down by humdrum love stories or other attempts to humanise the central hero, slowing the pace to a drag and denying us the pure testosterone boost we seek. But John Wick has no need for this brand of malarkey, which is another reason why it’s such a breath of fresh air. With his wife dead, the titular assassin doesn’t get involved with any other women, and he’s so skilled that he only rarely finds himself out of his depth.

Some may decry that John is too unstoppable, but I’m personally sick of seeing “badass” heroes being captured or beaten within an inch of their life. John does receive a few injuries here and there, but for the most part, he’s supremely confident. I found this quality both refreshing and satisfying. Above all, it’s executed in a believable fashion. Furthermore, John meets an array of friends throughout the movie who are wholly aware of his abilities and reputation. Fellow killers and even police officers are wary to engage Wick, respectfully leaving him alone as he conducts his business. Such touches give the production a gorgeous flavour, provoking a few welcome moments of dark comedy to lighten up the violent affair.

The sheer excellence of the action sequences cannot be overstated – they are orgasmic. John Wick denotes the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two stuntman who have evidently learned from the best during their respective careers. The shootouts here are mostly devoid of shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing, with the directors instead adopting a wonderful arrangement of smooth camera movements and some astonishingly artistic tracking shots. John Wick wears its R-rating on its sleeve, as well; it’s a beautiful antithesis to all of the politically-correct PG-13 action flicks that continually inundate today’s cinematic marketplace. Loud, savagely violent and hugely satisfying, all of the movie’s action scenes absolutely shit on the likes of Live Free or Die Hard, The Expendables 3, Terminator Salvation, and the RoboCop remake. Admittedly, there are a few evident instances of digital bloodshed, but the CGI doesn’t look overly phoney and it’s not distracting. Rather than looking like a post-production paint job, the blood is effectively integrated into the various environments.

Reeves has had his ups-and-downs as a thespian. Despite a strong performance in The Matrix, he’s bloody awful in motion pictures like Dracula and Johnny Mnemonic, and he’s well-known for being wooden. John Wick, however, plays to Reeves’ strengths, showing that he has more skill than his detractors are probably willing to admit. Keanu is cut from the same mould as Jason Statham, with minimalistic dialogue and a focus on physical action scenes, and the star absolutely nails it. He needs more roles like this. Fortunately, the supporting cast is just as impressive, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane all hitting their marks with confidence. Nyqvist is also effective as the leader of the Russian gang, while Game of Thrones luminary Alfie Allen convinces as the daft, overconfident young man who awakens the beast within Wick.

John Wick plays out with the same verve as the “one man army” action movies from the 1980s, but with a contemporary polish. If you enjoyed the likes of Taken, Punisher: War Zone or Safe, you will definitely enjoy this deliriously entertaining slice of big screen escapism.

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