Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Simplicity shouldn’t work as strongly as it does with John Wick, but the film rides its thin plot to admirably entertaining territory. The film is the first that Keanu Reeves has led since the domestic failure 47 Ronin, a sign that his star power may be dwindling with mainstream audiences or there may just be a growing ambivalence toward older action stars. But Reeves, now 50, brings a humanity to his title character that surprises with how authentic and grounded it makes the film. Granted, there’s an implausibility to the motivations behind the central premise and how flimsy it holds up throughout the feature, yet it never distracts from the dazzling violence put on display. It’s not particularly bloody or overdone, simply well executed and never dull. Characters face the consequences of such extreme acts of violence and our hero is flawed and weakened in his emotionally troubled state. The film, ultimately, understands how to stylistically overpower substance and use simply drawn characters in gripping, visually arresting ways.
The film focuses on John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recent widow that lives in a nice New Jersey home all by himself. His wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), haunts his memories as he watches old videos of her and grasps the idea that she’s really gone forever. The first five minutes of the film establish this beautifully, using little dialogue and interruption in favor of lingering, quiet shots that emphasize Wick’s loneliness and the isolation that consumes him. It’s powerful storytelling that lays the groundwork for the film. One night, a puppy arrives at his door as a late gift from his wife, who while dying of cancer realized that John would need something to get through his days. It not only expedites his mourning but also helps him feel connected with his wife once more. Sure enough, that all disappears when Russian mobsters led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) break into his house, steal his 1969 Mustang, and kill his dog for desired effect. As a web of his past begins to unravel and his former boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), reveals his place in the matter, John goes on a revenge rampage and will stop at nothing to ensure he finds some sort of solstice.
I would say there’s more to the story that I’m not revealing, but for the most part, the film’s plot ends there. There’s a mysterious organization that plays a focal part in the film called the Continental that allows the narrative to explore its more self-aware, comedic elements. Inherently, a story this barebones must employ some compelling characterizations. So it’s refreshing to see how John Wick uses its stylistic leanings to create a unique, strangely passive villain while simultaneously making the core struggle of the film work around its supporting cast. There are plenty of jokes about how people don’t realize who they are messing with, in particular with Iosef, while other incidents have people around the community letting John do his thing and not interfering. Loyalty and connections play a huge part in the film’s underlying themes. The supporting turns from Nyqvist and Willem Dafoe give the film strong character actors that work well in this seedy, beautifully photographed world. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have made an action film with not only heart, and not only strong characters, but also compulsively watchable set pieces that build upon its world. John Wick is some terrifically exciting, if simplistic, cinema.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)