Although he’s been working steadily for the past few years and was most recently seen in “47 Ronin”, there’s something about “John Wick” that very much feels like a comeback; perhaps not a return from absence but certainly a return to form. And, much like the character he plays, he’s lost none of his skills during his time away.
When Iosef Tarasov, the feckless, entitled son of a Russian mob boss takes a liking to a car, he’s not willing to take no for an answer so after his offer to buy it is rebuffed, he breaks into the owner’s house, brutally beats him and kills his dog for good measure. Unfortunately for Iosef, the owner of the car is John Wick, a retired hit-man with a legendary reputation.
Revenge movies are enjoying quite a resurgence at the moment, ever since Bryan Mills warned the Albanians about his ‘very particular set of skills’. Tonally, this is closer to last year’s “The Equalizer” than the “Taken” movies but it’s leaner than both of them and yet more expansive as it hints at a wider world involving secret societies and codes of honour amongst assassins.
After a subdued, almost Zen-like opening, once the reckless Iosef (Alfie Allen running a Russo-American variation on a theme of Theon Greyjoy) attacks, the film bulldozes forward with all the narrative subtlety of a video game. Set pieces are kinetic, ballistic and invariably capped off by a rollicking ‘boss battle’ before a calm but scene transitions us to the next set of challenges. I don’t mean this as a criticism either, the structure may be unsubtle but, like Wick himself, it’s deadly efficient. Keanu Reeves may not be the most versatile actor but what he does bring to the right roles is an immeasurable aura of cool. The role of John Wick fits him like a glove and he sells both the reluctant avenger and the ruthless killer aspects of the character well. He’s supported by an intriguing cast including Willem Defoe, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane and a scene-stealing Lance Reddick as the über-discreet Concierge of The Continental Hotel.
It’s the hints of a wider world of assassins and guns for hire hinted at in the Continental Hotel sections of the film that pique the interest most, teasing a richer and more complex world for our hero than is really demonstrated in the straightforward revenge tale offered up by the main narrative. Thankfully, these added layers of intrigue make up for a finale which feels a little too easy and too anticlimactic after the bravura action which preceeds it.
Former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski makes his directorial debut, codirecting with fellow stunt coordinator David Leitch (credited as Producer) and they make a fine job of it. As you’d expect, the fight scenes and action set pieces are magnificently choreographed, full of energy invention and a sly wit that even includes a nod to the original “Star Trek” (the ill-fated henchmen in the Red Circle Club all wear red shirts). But there’s more to the film’s eye candy than just top drawer action. There’s a bold use of colour throughout the film, scenes are suffused in warm neutral tones, chilly blues and visceral reds. New York, the backdrop for much of the film’s events, is photographed beautifully, the aerial shots of the city at night calling to mind Vincent Laforet’s stunning photo essay “Air”, set to a pulsating, energised soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J Richard.
It may knowingly reference its own video game similarities but make no mistake, this is a stylish and violent action thriller with an intelligent aesthetic and an eye for a killer shot, pun intended.