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Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: John Wick

There are a lot of reasons one should, in theory, be able to enjoy John Wick, the directorial debuts of stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. It's a delightfully shot shoot em' up with a well established world, and it has a lead that surprisingly acquits himself well to this environment. Yet, as the running time ticked away, I felt curiously held at a distance, much like Willem Dafoe's character: within sniping range, but never really able to nail my target.

In truth, the story of Wick (Keanu Reeves), a former Russian mob hit-man who experiences a great loss and begins to seek revenge from the mob due to another death that happens tangentially after (they killed his dog), is a pretty bog standard revenge tale. The kind of thing we've seen since the days of Hardcore and the like, but with the veneer of the unstoppable killing machine angle that's really taken root since Liam Neeson professed about his "unique set of skills" in a far less technically proficient set of films. But in its first hour, the director team do their yeomen best effort to elevate the material.

Stylishly shot to a fault, there's a kinetic energy pulsing throughout, particularly once the action really kicks in after the setup is established. Point-blank gunfire is paired with expertly choreographed stunts from elaborate set piece to set piece, and while it all starts to feel a bit video-game like after awhile, the early going of John Wick is a tribute to practical stunt-work and how seamlessly Reeves is drawn into the action. The choreography, as you'd expect, is something to behold, and the action is shot so cleanly, you catch every blow. In many ways, the film begins to feel like a very gruesome ballet, with some of the drawbacks that this also implies.

The aspect that I found myself most intrigued by and more curious to explore though was the sense of world-building that would make Rian Johnson nod his head in recognition. This is a reality where hitmen exchange gold coins for services that are as wide ranging as body disposal services and a hotel intended only for assassins. Better yet, there's even a club called "The Red Circle" which is basically an assassin's guild and a safe haven where "no business can be conducted". Everything tied to the more fantastic notions of the film are where John Wick soars. Having a few HBO alums like Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane all giving their best spin on the varying archetypes of the criminal underworld is also quite welcome, though Adrianne Palicki, as a particular pernicious contract killer, may be the best in show.

Had John Wick be an hour long or found a way to gracefully hit its endpoint, I'd have no issue calling it this year's version of Dredd, an action film delivered so extraordinarily, that its easy to overlook that it doesn't actually have much on its mind. This was not to be, to my chagrin, as the film quickly turns into a slog by the time we reach John's next big tragedy and the need for further revenge. Once we arrive at that point, we've pretty much hit full saturation with how many times we can see Reeves pull out a gun and shoot a few anonymous bad guys. It's not helped that the third act loses so much of the inventiveness that marked its preceding sequences, save for one really great scene that made me wish I had gotten an entire movie about the owner of "The Red Circle". 

Maybe if its major players were sketched out somewhat better, or if just a tad more attention was paid to the intrigue of the central plot, or if the filmmakers had one more really fun magic trick up their sleeves, John Wick would be easier to recommend. But like ballet, a little bit goes a really long way, especially when you learn that its all rushing headlong into an anti-climax (forgive me, dance enthusiasts!).

It's a great first hour though, especially as things get weirder and weirder, that might be enough for some; but for those who are hoping for a fully satisfying action film experience, you might want to revisit Snowpiercer instead.

Verdict: Save it for a Rainy Day
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