In the world of John Wick, hired assassins have a designated New York hotel of their own, the Continental, with the caveat that they are not to conduct “business” on the premises.
And while the most infamous hit man of them all is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he has already retired, motivated by love and its corollaries, safety and seclusion – though his wife (Bridget Moynahan), glimpsed in flashes of memory and an ever-present cell phone video, passed away after a sudden illness.
The film’s opening, as John endures his wife’s funeral and its aftermath, is slow-paced, nearly wordless, and unremittingly picturesque. John’s only solace arrives on his doorstep soon after, in the form of a puppy – a last gift from his wife to help John find peace and companionship.
But John’s vintage Mustang catches the eye of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), and John’s terse refusal to sell his car – or the beagle riding in the passenger seat – ignites something in the hotheaded mobster scion.
Iosef and his cronies break into John’s home, attack him savagely, steal his car, and – sealing their fates – kill the puppy. Returning to consciousness, John can only mourn the dog, and by proxy his wife yet again.
From that moment on, he is out for blood. Safety is no longer a consideration; it was a concession to coupledom.
Directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski.
John Wick’s first act hits all the right notes to distinguish itself from every other action movie by easing into the story with the sincerity of a drama, introducing John first and foremost through his experience of loss.
That he is a legendary hit man only begins to emerge when a car-shop owner (John Leguizamo) immediately recognizes the stolen car and chastises Iosef instead of meekly changing the plates and vehicle identification number for him.
John Wick, it turns out, is variously recognized in the criminal underworld as either “the bogeyman” or the sort of high-calibre champion one might send to dispatch the bogeyman. He efficiently annihilates assassins by the squad, driving home the notion that for this man’s enemies, consequences are both imminent and unavoidable.
When Viggo, well aware of John’s capabilities, learns of the deadly feud Iosef has incited, he seems almost to accept the impending death of his son with that philosophical resignation essential to the mob-boss figure in this sort of movie.
That doesn’t stop him from issuing a contract on John, one of such high value that even John’s acquaintances have to consider the opportunity, from his competitor Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) to his old mentor Marcus (Willem Dafoe, who injects a hint of marquee personality into a downsize role).
Checking into the Continental – whose owner, Winston (Ian McShane), and manager, Charon (Lance Reddick), are crucial allies in his return to the underworld – John begins hunting down Iosef and everyone else he holds responsible.
Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have earned their previous credits as stuntmen and action co-ordinators on an impressive series of films, from Fight Club and The Crow to 300 and The Matrix. Manifestly eager to show off all the tricks of the trade, they deliver on the action front but seem to forget that the film’s emotional impetus hinges entirely on the cuteness of a dog murdered in the early minutes.
The fighting is deadly serious, stylish but unornamented; computer-generated blood spurts from one close-range head-shot after another, but there is no wire-fu, no pugilists’ ballet, just a series of brawls and shoot-outs in dimly lit VIP clubs and lashing rainstorms, tracing John’s trajectory from inciting incident to vengeful catharsis.
The mythologization of John Wick is reasonably effective, but the surrounding ideas, particularly the Continental hotel and its conventions, suffer from being vague and tangential.
Reeves, whose less-than-expressive persona served him better in The Matrix, lives up to the physicality of the role as a gun-toting, taciturn angel of revenge, but displays little more than violent capability from beginning to end.
The abrupt escalation of the feud that motivates the story, rather than coming across as a comment on Iosef and his mobster ilk, just gives the impression of sloppy writing. (2008’s Red follows a more believable example of justice become retribution, also triggered by the killing of the protagonist’s dog.) John Wick the film knows as little of restraint as John Wick the title character.
And when it all comes down to a one-on-one between opponents too mis-matched for the fight choreography to admit, it’s simply unsatisfying and equally unsurprising.
John Wick is unapologetically an action film for and by action fans, but all told, on any other terms it has little to recommend it beyond the unfulfilled promise of a distinctively clean beginning.