An old school action film … with an old school hero
For all the bluster of the third Expendables film this year, a franchise that had worn itself out after two installments, there hasn’t been a genuine attempt to make an old school action film that wasn’t at least slightly tongue in cheek for some time. Hardcore action film fans had to prop up lackluster foreign films like The Raid franchise or hope that something like Dredd winds up finding its way into a franchise after not being able to actually draw in an audience when it was in theatres (or on DVD). So it’s interesting that Keanu Reeves, most noteworthy in the genre for a whole lot of awful underneath two of the best representations of the genre in the past 20 years (Speed and The Matrix), has popped up with easily the best true action film of 2014 in John Wick.
Reeves, currently at 50 but somehow looking like he has marginally aged since playing Neo, plays the titular character and protagonist looking for revenge because he has nothing else left to lose. Wick has retired from the assassination game for some time, leaving it for the great love of his life (Bridget Moynahan), when he loses it all. His wife he loses to a mystery illness, as she passes in his arms. Then the puppy she sent him in anticipation of her death, arriving the day after the funeral, winds up dead because the son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist) wants Wick’s vintage Mustang. He takes it from Wick in a home invasion, killing the puppy for seemingly no reason other than to be a dick, and then it’s on.
Wick decides that since he has nothing left to live for he’s going to kill everyone possible connected to it. And it’s absolutely glorious.
The thing that Chad Stahelski and David Leitch understand inherently is that when you commit to an R-rated action film you go full bore. This is a film that inherently understands it’s going to earn that rating, and not be cut up enough to make it PG-13, and as such it’s violence like we genuinely haven’t seen this year … or for some time. John Wick understands inherently that it’s an incredibly violent film and doesn’t shy away from showing any of it. Unlike a lot of action films that get made that wind up becoming R rated, but want to be cut to PG-13 potentially depending on the budget, this is a film that embraces the R-rating from the get go and makes no desire to want to be cut down for a larger audience.
It’s refreshing to see in an action film in the modern era of trying to skirt as close as possible to the PG-13 line without going over. Wick also tones down the usual gimmicks, from lots of shaky cam to cute angles and points of view, to make this as toned down and kinetic as possible. There’s a flow to it that’s very rare in the genre these days. The film moves with a purpose and there are no wasted scenes or sub plots to be found. From a writing standpoint this is as clean and effective as a script as it gets. Derek Kolstad’s script is one that’s fairly minimal, as we get just enough character to sink our teeth into, while hitting on the sort of clichés that are standard and acceptable for the genre.
This is a film that promises Keanu getting his revenge on against the Russian mob, and anyone in his way, and delivers just that. It’s refreshing because there isn’t anything that could be cut off without harming the film. This is as clean as it gets for a film, with no fat on it needing to be trimmed.
Reeves is his usual self, as he’s not a great actor by any stretch, but he does a couple of things that are interesting. The film doesn’t ask him to go above and beyond his range, which allows him to keep the film from being ridiculous. He is killing people because of a car and a dog, which is fairly light in the grand scheme of things for the genre, but Wick is in the right and Reeves makes us care. He also bucks the trend of having the 3% body fat and PED infused physique of many actors when they decide to do an action film. This is the same Keanu as we’ve seen before, a little thicker over the years from time, but Wick isn’t the physical specimen many actors would train to be. His strength as an actor, especially in action, has been that he’s in good shape for life but isn’t the sort of male fitness model type that many actors strive for now. It’s a throwback to the everyman from the ‘70s, who was in better shape than most but not over exaggerated in that regard.
In a year where film is down as a whole, John Wick is refreshing. It may not be the top tier of Reeves’ cinematic library … but it’s not far from it.
Director: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch Writer: Derek Kolstad Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan