Over the past few years, there have been a fair few throwbacks to the action films of the 80s. Films like The Guest and Cold in July have used the style of the 80s to create some incredibly engaging films and now comes, after way too long a wait for the UK, John Wick, which I think is the best of these types of films.
The plot concerns former assassin John Wick, whose wife has recently died and whose last act was giving John a dog to look after. However, the son of a Russian mobster who John helped rise to power, not knowing who John is, steals his car and, in the process, kills his dog. As a result, John goes on a rampage, killing everyone in his way to avenge the death of his dog. Now on paper, this plot is incredibly stupid but the way the film is scripted overcomes this stupidity. The entire thing is treated in the utmost sincerity and this gives the film a lot of charm and adds to the overall 80s feel of the film. The plot is incredibly simplistic but the world the film is set in is incredibly interesting. There are so many little details around the relationship between the different assassins, how the mobsters got into power and the safe house they have, most notably the Continental, a hotel where no business between assassins can be conducted. This is all stuff that builds a very compelling world and you want to know more about this world and a lot of the characters. And therein lies a problem with the film, it does its job at world-building a bit too well. There are so many characters in the film that come in and out of the film, many of whom could have whole films based around them. It feels like this film is more of a pitch for sequels focusing on these characters rather than a standalone film.
That said, all of these characters have a lot of personality injected into them by a murderers row of character actors. There is the common perception in the media that Keanu Reeves is a completely emotionless presence in films but that’s not the case here. His work may seem emotionless but is instead filled with a sense of stoicism that fits a character like him, someone who wants to turn his back on violence but who has experienced so much loss that he feels naturally drawn to the world again. Plus, the main reason why the plot isn’t as silly as it could have been is that you do feel a connection between Reeves and the dog that is really touching to watch at the start of the film. For the other cast members, Willem Dafoe is really well cast as Wick’s mentor and fellow assassin, who clearly shows a lot of respect for Wick and his employers whilst also showing a completely ruthless streak. Ian McShane meanwhile is fun in his brief appearance as Winston, the owner of the continental, although the comic highlight of the film is easily Lance Reddick as the concierge, who gets a lot of the best lines in the film. Michael Nyqvist and Alfie Allen do good work as the villains, Nyqvist being really intimidating but also showing a real sense of fear over Wick, whilst Allen plays his role like a spoilt rich brat which really works for the character and how he behaves throughout the film. Adrianne Palicki meanwhile is a natural action star, having great on-screen presence and between this and her role in Agents of Shield, she’s got a great future in action films. There are a few actors who are completely wasted though. Whilst they’re good in their roles John Leguizamo, Dean Winters and Clarke Peters, all great actors, don’t get much to do in the film. I’d have loved to have seen them more as their characters really helped build the world of the film.
The action scenes are where the film shines though. All of them are filmed with virtually no shaky-cam, with wide shots and long takes being the order of the day. This decision by directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch and DP Jonathan Sela allows the stunt team to really show off their work, unsurprising since the directors worked with Reeves on the stunts for The Matrix. They know their way around action scenes, and we see every detail. This is especially true in a scene set in a nightclub, traditionally a location where shaky cam rules, but here is incredibly well shot, everything is clear, there’s a strong sense of scene geography, the action scenes are just incredibly well handled and are brutal without being exploitative.
Overall, John Wick is one of the best pure action films to come along in a long time. Sure there are problems in terms of some of the actors being wasted but the world the film builds is incredibly compelling, Keanu Reeves shows just how good an actor he is and the action scenes themselves are directed incredibly. If you want to see a great throwback to 80s action films, this is the film to see.
My Rating: 4/5