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John Wick (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

JOHN WICK (2014)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrienne Palicki, Ian McShane

Written By: Derek Kolstad Directed By: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch

The Short Version

Keanu Reeves headlines a hitman revenge flick with a formula twist.

Really, this is the only proper way to respond to anyone who would hurt a puppy.  And I mean that.

The firefights are an exercise in violent elegance.

The performances are very good all the way down the line.

John Wick is one of the most satisfying gunplay flicks to come along in a while; it’s definitely worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Satisfying stuff with a touch of elegance.

Pairs Well With...


The perfect painkiller for when you take a shot to the gut.

“Baba Yaga.”

I tend to be leery of movies that are titles after a character the audience has no reason to have heard of before.  Abraham Lincoln, sure; but John Wick?  Who the hell is that?

As it turns out, John Wick is a character the world has seen many times before: a killer who retired from the business (subset: to start a new life for the sake of love), but decides to jump back in for the sake of revenge.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of familiarity, mind; formula elements are what genres are made of, after all.  So really, the audience already does know who John Wick is, at which point, all that matters are the details.

The details make John Wick an especially enjoyable entry in the vengeful hitman subgenre.

Along the first things the audience learns about the character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves, Man of Tai Chi) is that he very much loves his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan, I, Robot), who (no spoiler here, really) dies pretty much immediately.  But – and this is one of the film’s great twists – the vengeance that will drive Wick through story is not the typical “hunt down the dead wife’s killers” thing.  Nope; she dies of perfectly natural causes.  It just so happens that one of her final acts was to give her husband a new puppy so he could have someone else to love when she was gone.  (Saccharine as this may sound, it plays surprisingly and indeed exceptionally well on the screen.) 

And then some punk Russian gangster (Alfie Allen, “Game of Thrones”) decides, on a lark, to steal Wick’s car and kill his puppy.

To be clear: I do not in any way approve of the harming of house pets, even in the fictional realm of motion pictures.  (As Martin Riggs said in Lethal Weapon 4, “People, yes.  Dogs, no.”)  However, as a story catalyst in a hitman revenge flick, I do have to admit that it’s different, and I am glad that the director at least has the class to keep that specific point of violence off camera.  The rest of the movie’s violence is very much on camera, and frankly, I can’t imagine a more appropriate punishment for any scumbag evil enough to harm a puppy.

Okay, I can; but really, this will do.  Indeed, it does very, very nicely.

After presenting the audience with a unique catalyst, John Wick goes on to deliver its expected formula with slick, well-paced flair, allowing the audience time to savor fascinating if only briefly sketched secondary and tertiary characters along with interesting, sometimes surreal details – I love the concept of the Continental Hotel, and the apparent murder industry standard of a single gold coin as the accepted cost for nearly everything – in between some of the most entertaining, sharply crafted gunplay sequences I’ve seen on a big screen in a while.  In many action films, quantity of bullets and loudness of explosions are considered enough to make a firefight worthwhile; in John Wick, though there is indeed a high volume of shell casings hitting the floor, it’s all about choreography and finesse.  Rarely do high volume firefights come across as elegantly as these, with several sequences playing like ballets of tightly directed violence.  Like the character of Wick himself – and like the acting style of the man who plays him – every battle is focused and intense, whether the weapons are guns or knives or cars or even words.  It’s a violent poetry that’s all too rare, and that I very much appreciate.

I also appreciate the performances of the cast, which are very good to excellent across the board.  The title role of John Wick seems (and, given Hollywood’s tweak tendencies, very well may be) tailor made for Keanu Reeves, whose understated intensity works outstandingly here.  Meanwhile, Ian McShane (Death Race) and Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel) bring their own quiet gravitas to the secondary in crowd-pleasing fashion, and speaking of crowd-pleasing, John Leguizamo (Spawn) also gets a very welcome extended cameo shot.  On the other side of the hitman’s gold coin, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) plays the role of the world-weary Russian patriarch as though he were born to it, and Dean Winters (Hellraiser: Hellseeker) provides some welcome, very lightly humored Mayhem (*cough*) to the proceedings.  (“English, please?”)  And one simply can’t discuss John Wick without giving an appreciative nod to the fun performance of Adrienne Palicki (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as killer with no scruples who really enjoys her job.

This isn’t to say that it’s all perfect, mind.  Wonderfully executed as the majority of the fights are, there’s at least one that ends all too abruptly for its level of import to the story, and there’s really no reason to show a scene that occurs near the end of story at the very beginning of the film.  But the film’s sins are minor compared to its large number of strengths, and the result is one of the most surprisingly satisfying big screen actioners of the year.

Bottom line, John Wick is a well-crafted, exceptionally slick revenge flick that’s definitely worth checking out while it’s on the big screen, and that will also be well worth owning on blu ray when the time comes.  This is action for the permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014

More From The Bar! | Bullet to the Head | The Equalizer | The Mechanic |

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