JOHN WICK (2014, Chad Stahelski)
“Why are you still filming?” asks John Wick’s late wife, in an iPhone video he watches during the flash-forward opening scene of this grim, ruthless revenge thriller. Wick lies dying on some asphalt, gaping bloody wound in his side, watching the memory of the only thing he loved, as his eyes close. And we wonder, why are they still filming this? JOHN WICK keeps filming well beyond the moments any morally grounded storyteller would — it keeps its eyes focused on the relentless violence of its narrative, never stopping until the entire nihilistic world is laid to waste.
Chilly to the touch and reeking of gasoline and gunsmoke, this cold-hearted action film doesn’t really care for excess or equivocation. It’s a bullet train with a maniacal pace, loud with sound effects and light on character. As directed and produced by former stuntmen, its chief interest is its choreography, judiciously cutting only when necessary, letting the action happen within the frame as opposed to outside it and between edits. Not even the second unit shots are wasted: buildings are photographed at low angles with imposing colors, while overhead helicopter shots show the city of New York (and the world at large) as a place with scurrying ants, none of whom really matter in the end.
One bad guy begs his friend to stop playing a first-person shooter video game, only to join the real action of the film which mimics that of the game itself. It’s a meta moment that could be considered too tongue in cheek, but recognizes that we’re a species dedicated to killing ourselves, slowly but surely. And the killing here is epic — one shootout in a crowded nightclub would be the stuff of Virginia Tech Massacre-level news stories for years if it happened in the recognizable universe; but in the fantasy world of this film, it’s just another day at the office. And those days move and move and move; scarcely a shot or line of dialogue doesn’t serve an expository purpose — this is a tight-gripped, well-oiled, piston-chugging muscle car of a movie that, despite its overly familiar plot and third act loss of purpose, cracks and hisses at every turn, treating a bullet to the brain like a beat of its heart.
NOTE: Keanu Reeves deserves some attention for his acting. A lot of people, perhaps rightly so, enjoy insulting his attempts at gravity and drama, like when he has to do Shakespeare in Branagh’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (or Van Sant’s MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO) or get emo in DRACULA. They can’t shake his stoner persona from BILL & TED. But acting is as much physical as it is verbal, and whatever he lacks in dialogue delivery (though even that has its charms in films like THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) he makes up for in action skill. I mean, the guy just looks natural shooting a gun, running through alleys, or crouching behind a bullet-ridden truck. From POINT BREAK to SPEED to THE MATRIX to JOHN WICK, few action stars are as cool and believable. He’ll never get an Oscar nomination for a movie like this, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t great at it.