There is a special sub-genre in action films dubbed the “one last job” movie. Pretty much any film about an assassin will feature them on their last mission, which will inevitably go wrong either because they are set-up or they have an attack of conscience. But this is the first of many clichés that Keanu Reeves' new movie John Wick subverts. Wick successfully carried out his “one last job” years before, and then settled down with his wife. But it’s still an action film, so his peaceful life can’t last long.
The film opens as Wick is mourning his wife’s death from a short illness. He’s alone with his grief when a puppy is delivered to his door, a posthumous gift from his wife. John and this adorable puppy become best friends quickly, until one night a gang break into his house. They beat him up, kill his dog and steal his awesome car. Big, big mistake. The leader of this gang is also the son of Wick’s former employer, who upon hearing what happened sends an army of killers after Wick, knowing he’ll seek revenge. It turns out Wick is a legendary hitman, both feared and revered in the underworld. With nothing else to live for Wick goes after his target, and he’ll tear through anyone who stands in his way.
John Wick may well be one of the most refreshing action films released this year. It tells a very familiar revenge tale – albeit one about avenging a dog – but it stands out from the rest with its mix of witty humour, superb setpieces and fun performances. The film is a something of a love letter to the genre, and lovingly revels in and subverts it as much as it can.
Keanu Reeves has always been a strange success story as a movie star. Depending on the part, he’s either completely wooden or totally captivating. Thankfully, in the case of John Wick it’s nearly impossible to imagine someone else in the role. John’s emotions are mostly kept below the surface, but he can explode into violence at a moment’s notice and its Reeves' charisma that brings him to life. The film also makes great use of his physicality, mainly seen in the gruelling fight scenes, where he’s punching and flipping over opponents like nobody’s business.
And Reeves is backed by an excellent ensemble cast. Michael Nyqvist is his former boss, who brings an entertaining weariness and dark sense of humour to what could have been a boring role. His character seems resigned to the idea of losing this fight, but since he has to protect his son he has to fight back. He also gets the best laugh of the film when he reacts to the news of his son robbing Wick. Willem Dafoe is a mysterious former ally of Wick’s, who may or may not be on his side during his revenge quest. Alfie Allen, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki and John Leguizamo fill out the cast, and they all appear to be having a lot of fun.
The real selling point of John Wick is of course the action which breaks away from the popular “Chaos Cam” that dominates the genre. So instead of lots of close ups and quick-cuts editing, the filmmakers instead employ long takes and wide shots, allowing the gunfights and hand to hand scraps to play out cleanly for the viewer. This results in several intense and visceral setpieces, with a showdown in a crowded nightclub being the standout.
The script also gets high marks for its dry sense of humour. It’s not quite a comedy, but it gets a lot of laughs out of poking fun at both itself and the genre. The film establishes an underworld where assassins have their own high class hotel, where they can gather, unwind and trade stories after a hard day’s work.
They’re all on a friendly first name basis with each other, and most of them refuse to turn against Wick because they’re not that dumb. It’s a cartoony premise, but the film has its tongue in cheek just enough without spilling over into parody.
John Wick is a pulpy, stylish thriller with exciting action sequences and it’s easily Reeves' best film in many years. For action fans or those looking to have a little fun at the cinema, it comes highly recommended.
John Wick is released in UK cinemas on April 10th.