JOHN WICK Review: Fortune Favors the Old
Even if you take The Expendables 3 off the table, 2014 has been quite the year for the aging action star. (I take it off the table because aging heroes are the gimmick of that film and franchise.) The year has already seen major releases from a half-dozen of the AARP’s toughest tough guys (age, title):
Arnold Schwarzenegger (67, Sabotage)
Liam Neeson (62, Non-Stop)
Pierce Brosnan (61, The November Man)
Denzel Washington (59, The Equalizer)
Kevin Costner (59, 3 Days to Kill)
Tom Cruise (52, Edge of Tomorrow)
Well, there’s a new kid on the (retirement community) block: the freshly-minted 50-year-old Keanu Reeves. Like his peers, Reeves is no stranger to action films. His two entries of cinematic consequence are as the centerpiece of The Wachowskis‘ Matrix trilogy and star of the great 1994 action movie from Jan de Bont, Speed. Now, Reeves looks to prove he’s worthy of a seat at his fellow action elders’ 4:00 dinner table in his newest effort, John Wick.
Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who left the business five years ago when he fell in love. In the present day, his wife dies of a terminal illness and Wick finds himself alone, save the puppy his wife game him. While out for a head-clearing spin in his ’69 Mustang, Wick runs into a hotheaded punk at a gas station. The kid wants to buy his car. Wick says it isn’t for sale. The kid mouths-off in Russian. Wick mouths-off back in Russian. The kid and some thugs show up at Wick’s house that night, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car.
It turns out the kid is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). When Viggo learns his son did this to legendary killing machine John Wick, and when Viggo can’t reason with Wick, all hell breaks loose. Wick comes after Iosef while Viggo dispatches his own men to stop Wick and puts a $2MM contract on Wick’s head, something that interests Wick’s old hitman friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), as well as eager hitwoman Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).
Just like that cherry Mustang, John Wick runs on a lot of cylinders and it fires on almost all of them. It starts with a near-perfect open that efficiently and stylistically establishes Wick’s tragedy and creates the conflict necessary to power the film. It’s also where the legend of Wick is established, including the great line that, when compared to The Boogeyman, Wick is, “…the man you call when you want to kill The Boogeyman.” During the open, first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski establish a palpable sense of anticipation that things are likely to explode at any moment.
And explode they do, in action sequences that are often exhausting (in the best possible ways) and always stylishly choreographed. This is where the past expertise of Leitch and Stahelski shines: stunt work. With over 150 stunt-related credits between them, the directors thoroughly understand the physicality of an action sequence and how to make it look its best onscreen. The fire is rapid and the body count is high, but the directors keep it all well-framed and well-paced.
The casting is great, too. Other than Reeves, it’s a film built on character actors (with a fine cameo from David Patrick Kelly as a cleaner), all of whom understand how the sum of small parts can add up to one solid cast.
And for all of the good things the film does, there are things it doesn’t do that work well, too. Most importantly, the film never aspires to be something loftier, only to set itself up for failure (see: Lucy); it knows it’s about 90% style, 10% substance, and it maximizes that. Wick isn’t some kind of super-assassin. This is perfect, really, because his legend is that, but now, five years later, he’s a little out of practice, and he takes his shots as well as gives them (and he bleeds – considerably – in the process). Wick also has several tattoos, seen only once (read: not exploited) in a quick shower scene. The largest is text across his back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, reading “Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat”: Fortune Favors the Bold.
Screenwriter Derek Kolstad doesn’t load the dialogue with quips. The humorous moments – natural tension breakers – are spoken mostly during pauses that levity lends itself to. Also importantly, the filmmakers don’t sexualize Ms. Perkins. Palicki, a beautiful woman and no stranger to the pages of magazines like FHM, could easily have been crafted as some type of widow-maker, a woman who uses her body to accomplish her mission. Not here. Here she fires guns alongside (or against) the boys. She’s the only female character but she is treated as an equal.
The film isn’t without its flaws, though. The danger of high-octane action is that sometimes those rest periods feel a lot slower than normal; that happens here. Other action movie clichés can be found as well, including a villain whose time spent chatting affords the hero an opportunity to recover; an overwrought (almost anti-)climactic hand-to-hand battle at the film’s end; and some structure and rules within the film’s criminal realm that are clever, but strain the believability of the “honor among thieves” code. (These men and women have their own currency – it’s so odd.) As for the directors, while their collective eye for style is sharp and their use of close-ups is effective, they are enamored with transition shots of the city from overhead, which grows tiresome.
Oh, and the film sadly underuses John Leguizamo (as chop-shop owner Aureilo) and Ian McShane (as a key player in that quirky realm).
With a character perfect for Reeves’ stoic – at times emotionless – demeanor, and with subtle homage to films from action’s golden age, the 1980s (including Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Highlander), John Wick not only becomes a movie with connections to three previous decades’ worth of fine shoot-em-ups, it becomes one of the best action films of 2014.