Director: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Writers: Derek Kolstad
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bernhardt
Running Time: 96 min.
By Jeff Bona
If there’s one Hollywood superstar who’s maintained a solid connection with the martial arts film genre, it’s Keanu Reeves.
Reeves first made this connection in 1999/2003 with the Matrix trilogy, where he “learned” a great deal of on-screen fighting from legendary Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo Ping; in 2013, he starred in the samurai epic 47 Ronin, where he worked with Zhang Peng (choreographer of The Wrath of Vajra); that same year, he reunited with Yuen for the Chinese/U.S. co-production Man of Tai Chi, a kung fu flick he not only starred in, but also directed.
With a resume as physically demanding and cultured as his is, it should come as no surprise that Reeves is still kicking some serious ass in his latest film, John Wick.
John Wick marks the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, founders of the 87Eleven Stunt Team. They’re obviously known for staging stunt work and fight choreography in films like 300 (2006), Tron: Legacy (2010) and Safe (2012). Now, if Stahelski’s choreography work in Safe alone isn’t enough of a credential to get you excited about seeing John Wick, then you obviously haven’t seen Safe. Let’s put it this way: I like Reeves, but I’m not exactly watching John Wick for him, if you catch my drift.
John Wick is written by Derek Kolstad, who penned the straight-to-DVD actioners One in the Chamber and The Package (both star Dolph Lundgren, just to give you an idea of what kind of films these are). So, what we have with John Wick is essentially a “B-movie” with a moderate budget, a big star, and a couple of first-time directors who probably had one common goal: To make a brainless action flick for people who love excessive violence. Given this context, John Wick succeeds.
Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, an infamous, retired assassin who now leads a peaceful lifestyle. But when a series of unfortunate events distort his daily routine, Wick has no choice but to revisit his sinister past and go on one hell of a kill crazy rampage.
John Wick truly delivers during its amazingly staged action sequences. The majority of them involve brutal gun battles, which are stylishly choreographed with a dance-like rhythm; think a less exaggerated, more grittier take on Gun Kata, the fictional gun-wielding martial art style in Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium (2002). It’s a whole lotta fun watching Wick plow through hordes of enemies, sometimes shooting them 3 or 4 times a piece – aiming at various body parts – from a number of neat angles and distances.
The firefights are accented with hand-to-hand combat scenes, placed randomly between the endless rain of bullets. There will be those who complain that they’re filmed too close, or are too darkly lit, etc. This may be true, but the rest of the film’s savagery is the trade off. Although there wasn’t as many physical fight scenes as I’d like there to be, they’re at least done without the typical shaky cam approach.
The style doesn’t stop at the action. You might be amused by the treatment of playful on-screen text – and reoccurring subtitles – which were scattered across the screen using colored fonts, instead of the typical generic white text at the bottom of the screen. If you’re a muscle car enthusiast, the film showcases a number of beastly automobiles for your eyes (and ears) to appreciate.
What’s disappointing about John Wick is the lack of a competitive adversary to the title character. I felt the film was just begging for an enemy that can hold their own against Wick. The closest we get is an annoying femme fatale (Adrianne Palicki) who would be more suitable in a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond flick. Equally as bad is a non-threatening, over-the-hill gangster (Michael Nyqvist) who ultimately becomes Wick’s main opponent during the film’s anticlimactic finale.
Then, there’s the film’s music. At times, I felt it was overused. From what I remember, almost every time any type of action kicked in, it was accompanied by an uptempo soundtrack; sometimes it worked, sometimes it was overkill. There are some other questionable hiccups throughout John Wick, but you have to remind yourself that you’re watching a B-movie masked by the star of Speed (1994), so these flaws should be easily dismissed and forgiven.
Overall, not a bad directorial debut for Leitch and Stahelski. They certainly have a good sense of pacing, and without doubt, they’re the real deal when it comes to creating some hard-hitting action pieces. With a little less aerial shots (someone went a little stock footage crazy), and some worthy baddies worked into the script, the Leitch/Stahelski duo may one day make an action flick that I can fully recommend. As for John Wick? It’s definitely worth a watch, but if you’re wise, you’ll wait ’til it appears on Netflix.
Jeff Bona’s Rating: 6.5/10