John Wick (2014)
John Wick gained critical plaudits last year, rare for a pure action film, which pricked up my ears in attention and anticipation. Keanu Reeves, apparently looking for a Liam Neeson-like career redefinition in playing the kind of utter badass that would have made his more idealistic younger persona blanch, plays the eponymous character, who is introduced as a grief-stricken shell of a man unstuck in time as flashbacks to his recently deceased wife’s decline and death from cancer fracture his reality. He’s momentarily salvaged by his wife’s last act of kindness: an adorable pup she purchased for him as emotional keepsake. A brief stop at a gas station brings in a chance encounter with a trio of young Russian-American mob progeny, led by blonde prick Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who takes a shine to John’s vintage Mustang. John surprises them with his own command of Russian and fuck-off glare, but he also stokes their entitled arrogance. The trio break into John’s house, beat him up, and kill his dog before stealing the car. The moment Iosef takes the vehicle to hot car broker Aureilo (John Leguizamo, effective) however, he finds he’s bitten off far more than can chew, first signalled when Aureilo fearlessly slaps Iosef in the face in spite of the fact he’s the big boss’s son. Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) is even more disquieted to find who his son has pissed off, and for the first time John’s full name is uttered, revealing itself as a shibboleth of fear, as Viggo also calls him Baba Yaga, the Boogeyman, or rather, “the man you send to kill the Boogeyman.” Turns out Wick used to be Viggo’s number one killer, a brilliantly talented hitman whose unleashed fury will surely be deleterious to the health of many of the Tarasov employees.
The quality of the first twenty or so minutes of John Wick is worth iterating, for the intelligent way first-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch communicate Wick’s emotional state at the same time as swiftly sketching the story essentials, making Wick appear a completely normal man in the middle of personal desolation, looked over by interested but not entirely welcome old friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), whilst suggesting a hidden oddness to him. The revelation that Wick is actually a formidable demon not just from the same world as his tormentors but the kind whose very name sends shockwaves of anxiety through that world, is a pretty good one, evoking the same relishable switchback that drove Taken (2008) whilst taking it to another level, suggesting what might have happened to Tom Cruise’s unstoppable villain from Collateral (2004) if he’d been reformed and then grievously offended. Sadly, John Wick begins to deteriorate almost the minute it gets going, and by the end proves incompetent at sustaining dramatic involvement. Stahelski and Leitch suggest dynamic gifts for shooting action that may pay off in a genuinely good genre film sometimes in the future. Both are former stuntmen – in fact Stahelski was Reeves’ The Matrix (1999) stunt double and also played an Agent – and much like ex-choreographers made for excellent shooters of musicals through their awareness of the requirements and abilities of their performers, the duo follow Need for Speed’s (2014) Scott Waugh in suggesting stuntmen have similar savvy. Reeves’ physical elegance, suggested but never quite properly exploited in The Matrix films, cuts swathes across the screen in a series of well-choreographed, flashily shot sequences that make great show of their own relentless functionality, holding their camera back and drinking in the spectacle of a dance of death.
But I soon realised there is a terrible sameness to the action scenes in John Wick, as Stahelski and Leitch prove much less talented not just in sustaining the rhythms of engrossing storytelling, but in thinking up twists on the basic bang-bang hostilities and new contexts for their haute couture violence, which devolves into a series of obvious confrontations in back streets, dockyards, and a nightclub, which is lit and decorated in a manner that suggests all hell just broke loose in the joylessly eroticised, lysergically coloured nightspots of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) but paling before the way Frédéric Jardin exploited the same location’s sense of jostling claustrophobia in Sleepless Night (2012). The most interesting aspects of the film depict the odd values of an underworld that’s not so far under – a cop, after surveying a corpse lying in Wick’s corridor, politely lets him get on with his business, and Wick calls up professional body disposal service run by David Patrick Kelly of The Warriors (1979) fame. Lance Reddick is Charon, the suggestively named, unstintingly cool desk clerk in the Continental Hotel, a ritzy New York hostel which underworld hoods and guns-for-hire use as a meeting place and safe house, a little sliver of Fritz Lang-esque cordoned reality owned by sanguine plutocrat Winston (Ian McShane). Gold doubloons are the chief currency in this world and strict rules are enforced to defend the neutrality of the Continental. The deliberately ahistorical vibe here – goth punk tattoos rub shoulders with jazz singers and chivalrous expectations of behaviour – suggests the influence of Tim Burton’s Batman and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City films, and promises John Wick is swerving into some interesting world-building territory. Although based on an original script by Derek Kolstad, these touches augment the feeling the film gives off of having been based on a cultish graphic novel. Like many lesser graphic novel adaptations though, the work ultimately reveals a flimsy, undercooked aspect, the fetishized tropes that can be elegantly worked through on the page left looking stark and drab on screen.
Another trouble is that the “no-nonsense” quality many praised about this film strikes me by and large as just nonsense, a series of illogical actions that fatally defuse the desirable sense of melodramatic urgency. The idea of basing an action film around the murder of the antihero’s dog has a spoof quality to it, a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of emotional impetus that readily plays to the audience, which, as Stephanie Zacharek once accurately noted, is often far more easily offended by violence to animals than to humans on screen, often with the suggestion that they’re stand-ins for children, a suggestion particularly strong here. But John Wick is anything but satiric; in fact it’s exhaustingly straight-faced as it offers up such hoary tropes with slightly new twists like the hero, wounded and lying in the rain, staring at his wife’s image, this time on a smartphone rather than a faded tintype or Polaroid. The film has zero interest in making anything of the disconnection between the crime and the punishment, happily letting us watch Wick kill sixty or seventy people so that he can work out his grief and anger issues. Some might appreciate this is a refreshingly blunt and amoral pretext for a revenge play, and I might have too in a better context, but it just annoyed me here. Wick’s vengeance is of course actually motivated by the sense he’s been stripped of his one emotional salve by the brutal and unreasonable people of the world, who already deserve all they get, but the film just never becomes genuinely exciting because nothing is at stake.
Stahelski and Leitch start with a flash-forward that seems to find Wick on the point of death, and circle back to this scene at the end a la Brian De Palm’s Carlito’s Way (1996), but reveal it to be a grammatical decoy before a cringe-worthy final scene. Reeves plays the one moment where he loses his cool, when prostrated before Nyqvist’s godfather, with surprising force, showing off the animalistic pride under the man’s cool exterior. Nyqvist is good too, playing a bad guy who feels weirdly impotent in the face of what’s accidentally been unleashed, and so takes out his anger obliquely. Allen is stuck playing a variation on his Game of Thrones role, as a callow jerk who gift for dealing out sadism is readily and repeatedly returned. The film around them proves offensively uninterested in complicating its drama or deepening its character reflexes once set up. There’s no creativity to the set-pieces, no lines of memorably salty dialogue, no cruxes of dramatic irony, no reversals of expectation. What people have praised as the film’s straightforwardness is actually a desultory lack of wit or cleverness. As much as some seem glad to see the action genre reduced to merely prettily shot sequences of people killing each-other for no good reason, I object. We get a helpmate for Wick in the form of Marcus, who saves his bacon for hazy reasons even though Viggo offers him $2 million to take him out, apparently because he has some kind of fatherly/comradely feeling for him, and a talented antagonist in the form of Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki, relishing the unhinged aggression of her role at least). But both characters are foiled by the cluelessness of Kolstad’s plotting and the covert banality of Stahelski and Leitch’s directing, and each meets their fate in embarrassingly limp anti-climaxes. The film wants to get lost in a flurry of lunatic emotion expressed through mucho ass-kicking, but it never connects with that sense of mad intensity; it resolves with a final fight between hero and villain so perfunctory I admit I fast-forwarded through it. The last third of John Wick is an increasingly desperate study in how a film can lumber on and on without point, even when it’s only just over an hour and a half long. If this is the action film of the future, I’ll take the past.