The great Stephanie Zacharek wrote two pieces about John Wick in The Village Voice. Highly recommended reading (maybe after you’ve seen the film, which you definitely should):
Those two pieces, but especially the second, is the best of what film criticism can do. It can explain why something works for a certain critic, and if the critic is a good writer (and Zacharek is a great one), it will pulse with a feeling so compelling that you will have to go and see it for yourself. Or, it will put into words that ephemeral thing you could sense but didn’t know how to describe.
John Wick is a great piece of film-making. It is made up primarily of fight scenes, ferocious, with a body count equivalent to a small Romanian village. The film was made by two former stuntmen (it is their first feature, and I just have to tip my hat to that – this is incredibly bold, audacious, confident, GORGEOUS film-making) – and besides the story, which is a classic Revenge drama, it is a celebration of the old-school style of stuntmen, what stuntmen (and women) can provide. How AWESOME they are. But it’s how the film is shot that makes the difference. (Again, read that second piece by Zacharek. It’s all there. What she said, basically.) In my review for Taken 3, I talked about the problem of the current trend of quick-cut frenzied action scenes, how it ends up feeling lazy. Instead of creating an action scene that makes sense, visually, they just cut the film to shreds, hoping that the fast-paced edit will do all the work for them. Meanwhile, I’m watching a car chase and I completely lose my orientation in space. I don’t know where we’re going, who’s at the wheel, what’s happening. That’s not immersive film-making: that’s BAD film-making.
In John Wick, the highly choreographed fights are seen mostly in full, and all of the cuts make sense: they come when the fight takes a turn, when someone joins the action, when someone goes down. But until then, you get to see the phenomenal physical work of two actors PRETENDING to battle it out. The whole movie is one long fight, really, and so what ends up happening is you enter a world of relentless movement, bodies flying and lunging and crouching and falling, and it takes on a terrible and violent beauty. Zacharek referred to it as a barbaric ballet, and I couldn’t put it any better.
And the inciting event, as it were, the event that gets the ball rolling, that makes John Wick set out for revenge, is not a gimmick, or a lazily sketched-in plot point. It is specific, heartfelt, and thus totally understandable. All of that is dependent on Keanu Reeves’ mostly wordless performance in the first 15 minutes of the movie. It lands. It’s horrifying. Just as much thought has been given to that quiet sad prologue as to the multiple chaotic fight scenes that make up the rest of the film. Nothing is sketched-in. They have taken the care (the whole film shows great care) to set up their story strongly and emotionally.
John Wick is thrilling.