AUSTIN – When the lights went down in the theater for the Fantastic Fest debut of “John Wick,” I had no expectations at all for the film. It never occurred to me that it would end up being one of the most enjoyable things I saw there and a genuinely exciting announcement for a pair of pulp action filmmakers.
Chad Stahelski was the stuntman who doubled for Keanu Reeves on “The Matrix,” and since then, he's done “The Replacements,” both “Matrix” sequels, “Thumbsucker,” “Constantine,” and “Man Of Tai Chi” with Reeves, and they've developed a strong collaborative relationship. David Leitch, who co-directed the film with Stahelski, has worked on dozens of movies with him in the stunt department. They've both worked as second-unit actual unit directors on films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Escape Plan,” “Safe,” “The Wolverine,” Parker,” “Ninja Assassin,” and the upcoming “Jurassic World.”
The two of them make their feature debuts with “John Wick,” and thanks to their visual plan as well as a very clever script by Derek Kolstad, the result is something that works from start to finish, and it feels like the work of much more experienced storytellers. There's a confidence to “John Wick” that is sort of intoxicating. It's not often you see a film that takes such visible joy in shooting bad guys in the face, but there's something almost giddy about the hyperviolence of the film.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a hitman with a reputation as being the absolute scariest thing out there until he met his wife (Bridget Moynahan). In an opening sequence that is as efficient in the dealing of misery as “Up,” we see John lose his wife to disease, and as he seems on the verge of collapsing into himself. Then a gift arrives, and it's clear that she knew how he would hurt. She bought him a dog so he'd have something to love, and John quickly finds that he's able to use the dog, which he names Daisy, to give him a focus and a purpose.
You see where this is going, don't you?
There was an unexpected and accidental theme that emerged over the course of Fantastic Fest this year. Basically, dogs did not make it through the festival in very good shape. Daisy the dog, who is an absolutely adorable dog in every single second of her screentime, is no exception. John crosses paths with Iosef Tarasov (played by the eminently punchable Alfie Allen from “Game Of Thrones”), a punk kid of a Russian mobster, and Iosef decides he wants to buy Wick's car, a vintage muscle machine that Wick holds very dear. When Wick turns him down cold, Iosef takes offense, leading to him breaking into Wick's house in the middle of the night. The one real mistake Iosef makes is leaving Wick alive when he drives away with the car, especially since they put a bullet in Daisy, taking away the last thing Wick had left to love.
And even worse, John Wick has to take the bus.
“John Wick” has a pretty great sense of humor about John Wick, and Keanu Reeves steers directly into the absurd tone of things. As soon as Wick begins to get back into the business for the specific purpose of hunting down Iosef and killing him in the most unpleasant way possible, the film starts building out the world that Wick left behind, and it's a lot of fun. There's a big ensemble cast, including his old friend and rival Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a sympathetic chop shop owner named Aureilo (John Leguizamo), a mysterious hotel owner (Ian McShane) and manager (Lance Reddick), and the owner of a cleaning company with a particular specialty played by the great David Patrick Kelly, and everybody who shows up gets something fun to do. As a fan of Adrianne Palicki's work, I was especially pleased to see her play an unapologetic bad guy, and she's got a fantastic fight sequence with Reeves at one point.
Michel Nyqvist is great as Viggo Tarasov, the father of the totally idiotic Iosef, and as soon as he realizes that his son has crossed this particular wrong person, it becomes all about self-preservation and less about taking care of his son. The film is carefully built, so while it contains a ton of action, each sequence stands alone, with just enough breathing room in-between. The movie escalates with a sense of control that's genuinely impressive, and by the time it reaches the big finish, you are rooting for John Wick to shoot everyone in the face. Because he does. Oh, man, does he shoot people in the face.
One of the benefits of Stahelski and Leitch directing the film is that, as stuntmen, they know what they want to see. This is directed the way Gene Kelly directed dance movies, with a huge amount of respect paid to making sure you see someone's whole body in the frame when something amazing happens. They want you to see how much of this is Reeves, and when it's not him, they want to trick you by happily showing you every inch of the stuntman. It makes for dynamic action that is 100% Greengrass-shakey-cam-free. Jonathan Sela's cinematography is sleek and clean, and Elisabet Ronaldsdottir has a great percussive editing style that serves the material perfectly.
“John Wick” won't redefine action movies, but it perfectly exemplifies what I want from an action film when I go. Have fun with the world, shoot the action well, motivate it in a way that doesn't feel cheap. It's amazing how little it takes to do it well, and how hard it seems to be for people to do it. “John Wick” is the goods, though, and for action fans, you're in for a treat in just over a week.
“John Wick” arrives in theaters October 24th.
“John Wick” was reviewed as part of Fantastic Fest 2014.