With the release of John Wick Chapter 2 in cinemas I decided to revisit the original 2014 sleeper hit. This is RetroView, where we take a glance back at films that have been out for a while, cult movies, overnight successes or overlooked wonders, John Wick was a surprise hit that came out of nowhere. No one in the world was asking for a Keanu Reeves led action flick with a downright dopey premise. Gangsters kill his dog, John Wick vows to kill them in return. It’s exactly the type of idea that makes disposable box office offal yet John Wick instead is one of the most intensely realised and enjoyable cinematic action spectacles of the decade.
From a narrative perspective, the only aspect of John Wick that is different from your typical action movie is the fact that his revenge is over a puppy rather than a child or spouse. It’s an incredibly efficient shortcut to affectation. Whereas a movie such as Taken wastes a lot of time establishing Maggie Grace’s character and relationship to her father John Wick makes you care about his cause immediately by using a cute puppy.
Each scene of exposition is enjoyable because of the simple fact that it’s nice to watch a puppy. Then when you see this dead innocent animal you want nothing more than payback on the people who did it. Bam! You’re engaged. Director Chad Stahelski “We just thought a puppy was a more manipulative way to shock the audience” and manipulation is exactly what it is. It is not a dirty word, cinema is all about manipulation, and when a movie is a vehicle for Keanu Reeves to gun down 80+ nameless thugs there is no need to bother with subtlety.
Still, the film indulges for a long while in tense build up to the potential of action. For a while there seems to be a little too much hushed words and discussion about how threatening John Wick is while he is not on the screen. In a lesser film this would become tiresome but here it is regularly justified half an hour in when Mr Wick kills his first assailant and the bodies just pile up from then on.
Reeves brings his best work to the table since The Matrix. He does almost all his own stunts, so that the camera can be placed stationary. Allowing the action the freedom to actually be action instead of a shallow manipulation of fast cuts, zooms and disorientation.
The film is a joyful ode to the action movie, it is filled with traditional tropes that are all taken to their logical extreme without becoming excessive. There is a showdown in a lightning storm, a knife fight in sideways rain, a single handed take down of an assault team and silent infiltration of enemy bases. None of the specific ideas of the film are particularly unique but they are all stylised in the most intricate ways and never repeat each other.
The action remains as small scale as possible whilst still constantly escalating. There is a total of three explosions in John Wick and they all happen simultaneously. The film is about John Wick’s fighting ability rather than his preparation or his firepower it finds entertainment in the small, specific moments of skill and quick thinking. The action never becomes boring despite that there is not much else to the film other than John Wick kills people in different ways.
Nyqsit is hamming it up to the extreme as the Russian mob leader Viggo Tarasov. He seems to be the only character in the film that fully grasps how much of a threat John Wick is and tells anyone he can at every opportunity. In fact Viggo seems to come to terms with the fact that he is going to die about half an hour in to the film, leaving his character free to descend into a vicious spiral of self-destruction and free-wheeling euphoria; it is a wonderfully joyful experience.
The film’s lighting department bring their A-game, colouring each scene like a film from Nicolas Winding Refn. Each shot is taken to its contrasting extreme, it is an all senses cinematic. An impressive feat of effort on every front, the film is excessively considered in its approach to creating an aesthetically pleasing experience. Each factor of the film making process has been fine tuned to work as a conduit for the spectacle.
What emerges from this conglomeration of care and attention is a movie that finds joy in every scene; let’s throw John Wick into a mustang, have him drift around a rainy airfield. Why? Because it looks good. Let’s fill this scene with unsourced neon blue light. Why? Because it looks good. Let’s have the NYPD completely absent from the movie. Why? Because it would slow down all the great murders!
John Wick is shameless in all the right ways. It burns with a desire to please the eye and is a refreshing step away from the brooding seriousness of mainstream movies. It is a great example of a film that knows what it is, that pursues a singular goal and shuns gritty realism in exchange for solid entertainment. It’s fast paced, highly focused fun and, above all, entertaining.