"In a bar, I once saw him kill three men... with a pencil."
Stunt virtuoso Chad Stahelski’s ambitious debut feature succeeds because it does what other action films are afraid to do.
Far too often do I find myself silently yelling at the cinema screen (etiquette is important no matter how frustrating the film is) when a villain, henchman, unworthy adversary, or other incompetent muscle could be finished off with a simple, brutal double-tap but are spared. The Joker in The Dark Knight would argue otherwise, postulating his adoration for knives. Gareth Evans, director of The Raid opted to showcase the power of close quarters combat. Where as, Stahelski choreographs exhilarating action sequences centred around John Wick’s unerring skill with a H&K P30L, and it works brilliantly.
Imagine you’ve just gone out and bought ‘John Wick’ (The Video Game). You hastily tear off the cellophane wrap, depress the disc and slot it into your console of choice. The lights dim, the music swells and you’re introduced to John Wick in the opening cut scene. John wallows around in a state of grievance. His wife of five years recently passed of an undisclosed illness and your character looks lost in his loneliness. The rain pours down, hammering away at John’s umbrella as he stands at his wife’s funeral in deep contemplation. Consoled by friends and yet, still not uttering a word. He returns home late that evening and is disturbed by a knock at the door. He signs for a package, delivered posthumously at his wife’s request. He opens the letter and rests in his emotional grief for a moment as the camera pans across to the contents of the package, a puppy Beagle. Able to melt the heart of the baddest retired Hitman in the business this is no ordinary puppy. To John, Daisy represents a gift, “in that moment I received some semblance of hope, to grieve unalone…”
Until the day that it’s all taken away from him, again. After an all too unsubtle sinister encounter with a trio of Russian mobsters John doesn’t make the connection but we see it coming. Later that night our image of Daisy’s cute bounce out of the room is shattered when John receives a fairly heavy blow to the head by home invaders looking for the keys to John’s Mustang. Crashing to the floor John is helpless to prevent Daisy’s heart shattering put down. Left unconscious John slowly wakes to the sight of his last semblance of hope lying bloodied on the floor.
Friends aren’t a tough commodity to come by when you’re a member of a well connected, exclusive organisation that runs and enforces the rules of the hired gun society. John’s notoriety follows him everywhere like an enchanting plague of admiration and fear and those that know him, know not to cross him. Iosef Tarasov, son of Viggo Tarasov leader of the Russian mob and John’s former employer, did not get the memo. Responsible for Daisy’s death and the theft of John’s car Iosef inadvertently coaxed John out of retirement by placing himself dead centre in John’s crosshairs and this time it’s personal.
Yeah, I'm thinking Keanu Reeves is back.
Stahelski tears page after page out of the revenge movie playbook. But what distinguishes John Wick from other action movies is a sense of comic book surrealism. John Wick exists in a city where his name is feared in the criminal underworld. Everyone is aware of the sacrifices he made for a normal life. Carrying a reserved vulnerability around with him John begins his enquiries into the whereabouts of Iosef after Viggo sends twelve trained killers to their deaths in an ill-conceived pre-emptive strike.
Responding to a noise complaint a local police officer greets John by name and John courteously returns the gesture to Jimmy. Jimmy glances down the dimly lit hallway to a conspicuous body lying still on the floor, “You working again?” This is our first real look at the suave, smooth talking Wick and Stahelski proves he’s more adept at film making than his stuntman-for-hire credentials would have us believe. Showing a deft hand at creating suspense and throwing in a little humour Stahelski’s natural talent for fight choreography and stunt coordination shines through as a complete package in Wick’s first, rusty, outing since retirement. Reminiscent of Luc Besson’s Léon Keanu Reeves controls the room with sublime brutality. Calling in a ‘dinner reservation’ for twelve, or hired killers for clean-up on aisle Wick, the elaborate system of connected hitmen have a logistical system that would give Harvey Dent a headache.
John Wick toys with beautifully shot neo-noir visuals and soundtrack but Kolstad’s inconsistent script gets bogged down in substance. It struggles to define itself as a stand alone revenge trilogy and instead becomes confused with an ersatz Drive copycat, a place no film maker wants to be. Stahelski’s second outing with the announced John Wick 2 would benefit from a clearer direction of its compounding elements. Making for a wholly more digestable revenge flick that needs to find the fine balance between style and substance to deliver the same package with a more incisive punch and smoother, less clichéd dialogue.
Chad Stahelski’s super stylish slick revenge thrilller treats us to the full snap, crackle, and pop we’ve come to expect from his stuntman background and relationship with Reeves, blossoming since 1991’s Point Break. Working on films including The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta, 300, and more recently The Hunger Games, Stahelski could easily name drop his way into retirement, but thankfully he put his energy into John Wick a Brilliant no-nonsense, hyperviolent, grieving hitman.
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