John Wick (2014)

2015 #89
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.

4 out of 5

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. ^

The Guest (2014)

2015 #87
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

The GuestThe writing-directing team behind You’re Next turn their attention to a different genre with this ’80s-throwback thriller that’s made of awesome.

One morning in New Mexico, David (Dan Stevens) turns up on the doorstep of the Peterson family. A former soldier, he tells them he was with their son Caleb when he was killed in action, and he asked David to visit his family. Mum Laura (Sheila Kelley) welcomes him with open arms and insists he stays for a few days; suspicious dad Spencer (Leland Orser) is soon won round; socially-awkward teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is quick to see the benefits of an older ‘brother’ who can handle himself; twenty-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) is initially skeptical, then convinced of his merits… but then… Well, I could say more, but who wants it spoiled?

That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers or other promotion, you’ll have some inkling of where The Guest is going. Maybe not entirely, because they didn’t blow everything in the trailer, but still: this is (in part) an action movie, and Stevens’ ex-soldier does get to show off the skills he learned in active service. Suffice to say, there’s another reason he’s visiting his army buddy’s family in the back of beyond, and it has a lot to do with shady Lance Reddick and his awesome voice. Ok, it has nothing to do with Lance Reddick’s voice, but that is awesome. Lance Reddick’s voice should be in more stuff.

Sexy StevensThe days of chubby Matthew Crawley long since banished, a buff Dan Stevens (there’s a reason his topless scene was also all over the marketing) is entirely convincing as the seemingly-nice-but-possibly-creepy army man who inveigles his way into the Petersons’ lives with pure charm before gradually revealing, both to them and (especially) us, that there’s a lot more to him than a nice guy who happened to kill people in the Middle East. For my money, he’s the best anti-hero in a long time. Occasional flashes of dry humour — a line here, a look there — make him likeable to the audience, more than the charm that persuades the other characters does, so that by the final act we’re still pretty much on his side, whatever else happens.

Maika Monroe makes an equally appealing co-lead, and something of an audience cipher as she digs into David’s backstory. Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett wisely reveal just enough of this to keep us informed but don’t info-dump the whole shebang (apparently they shot and test-screened scenes that explained it all in detail, and the test audience agreed that it was too much unnecessary information. Well done, test audience). Some have taken issue with the “kids discover everything” angle the film unrolls in its second half, but it’s part of the ’80s-ness. I can’t even think of what films to cite, but it feels like something you see in quite a few ’80s genre flicks.

That rather goes for the film as a whole, in fact. It’s definitely set now, and there are more modern precedents for some of it (a review quote on the Blu-ray cover mentions The Bourne Identity — there are some plot similarities, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the same kind of film), but a feeling of ’80s-ness persists as well — but without easy reference to other specific movies. Maybe that’s my knowledge coming up short, She wasn't even born in the '80sbut I know I’m not the only reviewer to feel it. Wingard evokes that era and the feel of those movies, without slipping into parody and without merely ripping-off familiar flicks. I think this especially comes to the fore in the final act — it’s arguably even most distilled in the very final scene — but, again, it’s a feeling, a sensation, a familiarity, not a blatant, I dunno, “look, now we’re in the ’80s!”-ness.

This is underscored by the amazing soundtrack. I think it’s a mix of original score and sourced songs, but the effect is seamless. Apparently it was composed on the same type of synths used for Halloween III, which may or may not give you a sense of where it’s going, but — much like Wingard’s direction and Barrett’s story choices — it’s an ’80s vibe with a modern twang. I get the impression the songs included are recent cuts, not jukebox throwbacks, which I guess is some subculture of modern music. Or possibly mainstream, I dunno. Whatever, it’s all cool. I must get my hands on a full soundtrack (a quick look at Amazon reveals a digital-only release that doesn’t look particularly thorough. Must investigate more…)

In case it’s not yet obvious, allow me to state it bluntly: I loved The Guest. I loved Dan Stevens’ character and his performance. I loved each and every one of the perfectly-placed supporting cast. I loved the wit and the action scenes. I loved the ’80s-inspired plotting. I loved the score. Indeed, I loved pretty much everything about it. The best guestNot everyone loves it — some people outright hate it, even. I suppose it’s a little bit idiosyncratic, in a similar way to something like Hanna… which I also adored, of course. They’d make a fun double bill.

No guarantees, then, but naturally I wholeheartedly recommend you invite The Guest in. To your life, I mean. As in, watch it.

5 out of 5

The Guest is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.