Chad Stahelski (& David Leitch)* | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R
Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a nice guy whose wife sadly died. Now he lives alone with a puppy. Then he accidentally annoys a thug (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) at a gas station, so he and his mates break into Wick’s house to teach him a lesson. The thug is the son of a big-time gangster (the Millennium trilogy’s Michael Nyqvist), so he does that kind of thing. They kill the puppy, but leave Wick alive. However, turns out Wick used to be an awesome assassin, renowned throughout the underworld — to everyone except this kid, it seems — and so he quite rightly sets out to execute their dog-murdering asses, consequences be damned.
John Wick is an action movie. I know you know that, but what I mean is, that’s kind of all it is. There’s no transcendent deeper meaning here; no attempt to explore the real life of a hired killer. If anything, this is an ultra-heightened universe, where the criminal underworld has an entire society and set of rules unto itself, including a raft of familiar faces in cameo-sized roles. It feels like it’s adapted from a comic book — they usually put that level of extra detail in more than films do — but it isn’t. There’s a rich world hinted at here; one that teases at more, but also supports the film. That is to say, there’s fan-driven talk of sequels and spin-offs set in this ‘universe’, but in and of itself it functions within the film, rather than simply being setup for more. It’s a better way to potentially start a “shared universe” franchise than the forceful way other studios are going about it with DC heroes / King Arthur / Robin Hood / et al, anyway.
A decade and a half on from The Matrix, Reeves (and presumably an army of stuntmen) remains as capable an action hero as ever. Co-directors Stahelski and Leitch have an extensive background in that field (they first worked with Reeves on The Matrix and its sequels) and so they know what they’re doing when it comes to the shoot-outs, fist-fights and car duels. Unfortunately for John Wick I watched it soon after The Guest, whose singular style ultimately made more of an impression on me, but there’s no denying the virtuoso fight work on display here. This is a film for action movie fans to revel in — it has little to offer anyone else.
That said, this isn’t a straight-up Statham-style blockhead fight-fest. That unique, unusual world it sets itself up in sees to that. It has an almost mystical, fairytale quality to it. There’s no sci-fi or fantasy element, but it does feel like Wick descends into an alternate world, one hidden alongside our own. Tonally, at times it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (or the TV series it comes from, as I’ve never read the book). I suppose it’s because this criminal underworld has its own special rules, its own special locales, and an occasionally mannered way of talking and behaving. As I said, there’s no fantasy element, but it has a left-of-centre alternate-reality feel.
Combine that with the exciting, innovative, technically faultless action sequences and you have a distinctive, memorable movie. It seems to have gone down a storm with action movie fans, anyhow, and so those hoped-for sequels and/or spin-offs are most definitely in development. It’ll be interesting to see if it does what-I-call “a Bourne”, spiralling from a well-liked almost-sleeper-hit first film into an everyone-knows-it major franchise, or, well, not.
John Wick is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.
* Leitch is uncredited as a director due to those DGA rules that meant Robert Rodriguez had to resign his membership to give Frank Miller his due on Sin City; that meant the Coen Brothers used to just be credited as “Joel Coen”. It’s pretty clear (especially if you watch the special features) that Stahelski and Leitch worked as a team, so for once I’ve ignored my rule of only crediting the credited director. ^