Review: John Wick (2014)


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):

Keanu Reeves is Just Plain Awesome in John Wick

How John Wick Restored My Faith in Violent Movies

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.

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5 Responses to Review: John Wick (2014)

  1. bainer says:

    This was the film I most looked forward to last year! Partly because I really enjoy a good action thriller, but also because one of my favorite book series, the John Rain series by Barry Eisler, may be turned into a TV series with Keanu Reeve’s as John Rain, with the same people who did the John Wick movie. In a sense, the John Wick movie was a preview of how the John Rain show might look and it looks like it could be really good.

    I re-read the John Rain series just about every year. The character arc is tremendous and I enjoy the thriller and violent aspects as well. (shameless plug – in true Quaker tradition I was moved to write a fanfic of John Rain and publishe it on Kindle Worlds).

    I enjoyed “John Wick” but since I was looking for John Rain I felt a bit let down when I saw it. I think I need to re-watch it for itself. Thanks for bringing this one up!

    • sheila says:

      Bainer – so glad to hear your thoughts!!

      This whole John Rain thing sounds fascinating. I don’t know anything about it – but your passion is infectious. Plug away!!

      At the ending of the film, I definitely felt the potential for a franchise – I mean, it begs for more. A TV series could potentially be ideal! The shorter format could really work, I think.

      The amount of stunt people used in this film is the equivalent to the visual effects teams listed at the end of, oh, Gravity or something. HUNDREDS of people.

      I loved the fight between Reeves and the woman in the hotel room. There’s one moment when they’re on the bed, and he’s on all fours, and she is crouched on top of him, huddled over him, like an alien or something, and he’s spinning around trying to get her off him. FUN.

  2. mutecypher says:

    I loved that last paragraph in Stephanie’s second review.

    I really enjoyed this film. Keanu has a unique athletic grace. To some extent, he reminds me of the comment you made about Harvey Keitel in our discussion about The Congress – he does not lie. He just is. That gets made fun of, which is … stupid. A graceless word for graceless thoughts.

    The movie was specific, precise, elegant in the violence. And I loved little touches like John Wick calling in someone to clean up the mess in his home. When do you see that in an action movie? I suspect stuntmen are the same class as the folks who clean up after messes and explosions in movies – a nice touch. Everyday physical stuff. I also like that the violent assassins had a code, and an off-limits place. There was a sense of honor in the mayhem that kept all of the brain-spray from mere nihilism.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher –

      Yes, I love Keanu – I loved Man of Tai Chai too. He’s kind of fearlessly himself. Maybe he’s limited. Who cares. He brings it. And that opening prologue killed me – when he reads the note from his wife. Heartbreaking. I love him as an action hero, too. He’s got this grace to him – and I loved how John Wick shot his guns. The focus – shoot the guy in the chest, then shoot him in the head. Make sure he’s dead. I mean, brutal, but it was his “way.” That’s why he is so feared.

      I loved the clean-up crew!! Harvey Keitel (again!!) in Pulp Fiction!

  3. mutecypher says:

    I watched Man of Tai Chi last night. I got a kick out of some of his “bad guy” faces just as he cut a couple of scenes. And I liked that he directed himself as the villain, not the hero. It was a fun movie. I like that Keane seems to just do things that interest him. I’m thinking I may watch 47 Ronin tonight, I’d like to see him with a Samurai sword.

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