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John Wick | Review

Who the Hell is John Wick?: Leitch & Stahelski’s Revenge Flick Energetically Entertaining

John Wick PosterAgainst the general mediocre trend of stuntmen turned directors, Chad Stahelski’s unassumingly titled John Wick is a surprisingly adept action thriller, resurrecting Keanu Reeves for his most enjoyable screen persona in years. Though its premise is pure pulpy amalgamation of basic revenge tropes forcing a criminal mastermind’s return to his lethal expertise (something we’ve seen a variety of grizzled visages return to this year alone, including Pierce Brosnan and Kevin Costner), the Stahelski strikes the kind of entertaining tone that many of these mind numbingly violent films are often unable to capture. Fast, fun, and with care taken on elements outside of the requisite action sequences, it’s a film that succeeds in generally conquering the fatigue of its own familiarity.

A retired and happily married hit man, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) loses his wife to a debilitating illness. As a final present from her, a puppy arrives at his home as her bid to grant him a companion to grieve with. Not even twenty four hours after the arrival of the canine, Wick has a run-in with a band of Russian mobsters at a gas station who are attracted to his car, a 1969 Boss Mustang. That night, said mobsters, led by Isosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), raid Wick’s home, beat him, kill his dog and steal his car, which they bring to a chop shop run by Aurelio (John Leguizamo). But Iosef is turned away by Aurelio upon finding out where the car came from. Likewise, Isosef’s father Viggo (Michel Nyqvist), who is a Russian crime boss that used to be an associate of Wick’s, is rather unhappy with his son’s actions knowing full well that the retired assassin will find them and seek retribution. Viggo puts out a contract on Wick, but it’s already too late—he’s out for blood and already predicting their moves.

There’s more than one aspect of John Wick that warrants a comparison to this year’s earlier release of The Rover, wherein we were warned to “fear the man with nothing left to lose,” here laid out specifically as Wick’s last two earthly possessions that mean anything to him—his Mustang puppy dog Daisy. Again, we have the Russian mafia centering the elite ring of underground baddies, and even though they’re headed by Michel Nyqvist and Alfie Allen (who are actually Swedish and British, respectively), their interplay with Reeves’ one-note mercenary is always stimulating. The same can hardly be said for the Russians Denzel Washington battles in this year’s The Equalizer, which lacks the similar charisma established by Stahelski’s playful tone.

Notable supporting players like Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane provide memorable back up for Reeves’ eponymous protagonist, itself a general gamble for box office success from a studio backed film as it poses a difficult marketing strategy (John Carter, for instance).

Surprising, even viciously violent considering the watered down fare we’ve become accustomed to from PG-13 action thriller counterparts (and doling out its fair share of bloody scrapes for its protagonist), John Wick manages to look arresting in its cheap chicness, barreling through neon lit clubs and a bleary faced, rain soaked New York, making this a standout title from DP Jonathan Sela, who is usually shackled by the quality of film he’s working on (from Soul Train to The Midnight Meat Train).

More notable is film editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, who regularly works with Baltasar Kormakur, and she’s responsible for enlivening John Wick’s impressive amount of tightly executed action sequences. In a sea of general nonsense, John Wick stands out as the entertaining, bloody thriller it aims to be, and shows Reeves as an adept force that recent fare like the miserable 47 Ronin (2013) or his own directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi (2013) were unable to capitalize upon.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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