“They killed his dog. And now he’s going to kill them.”
That’s pretty much the elevator pitch1 for ‘John Wick’ right there.
1: (Elevator pitch – so named because anyone caught using the term2 deserves to be sliced in half by a falling elevator, just like Meshach Taylor in ‘Damien: Omen II’.)
2: (Anyone, that is, except me.)
You can imagine directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch3 using it, semi-jokingly, as they outlined the vision for their debut feature to its leading man, Keanu Reeves.
3: (Directors Guild of America rules mean Stahelski receives the sole directing credit for ‘John Wick’. Because of course that’s precisely why a directors’ union exists – to prevent directors being credited for their work.)
If such a pitch had happened4, then Reeves – densely oaken as he is oft-caricatured as being – would have certainly got the first part of the gag; namely that Stahelski and Leitch, two men he already knows more about than most thanks to their work as stunt coordinators on ‘The Matrix’ movies, are going to be able to whip up a whole heap of mayhem from a line so ostensibly simple as ‘now he’s going to kill them’.
4: (Such a pitch did not happen; having already signed on to star, Reeves suggested Stahelski and Leitch as possible directors for the movie’s action sequences. They quickly realised the movie was pretty much ALL action sequences, and successfully pitched themselves to direct the whole thing.)
Whether Reeves appreciated the second part of the gag would have depended on if he’d read Derek Kolstad’s script or not5. Because as elemental and bludgeoning a force as ‘John Wick’ would like you to believe that ‘John Wick’ is, there’s more to this act of vengeance than an initial inspection might suggest6.
5: (As already noted, Reeves presumably had read the script ahead of Stahelski and Leitch, although not necessarily: George Clooney didn’t read a script before signing to do ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’; less happily, Ryan Reynolds recently admitted to not reading the ‘Green Lantern’ script ahead of agreeing to star in it, the dolt.)
6: (But not THAT much more. Let’s not pretend this is ‘The Party and the Guests’.)
Just such an initial inspection would tell us that ‘John Wick’ belongs to the action movie subgenre of ‘reluctant super-killer’7 – focusing on a protagonist who’s doled out death on an industrial scale in the past but wants/is out of the game, only to subsequently find themselves dragged back into the mire. Other examples bled from the same vein include ‘Haywire’, ‘RED’, ‘Gladiator’ and yes, ‘Taken’.
7: (Similar but distinct from the ‘sleeping super-killer’, of which ‘Hanna’, the ‘Bourne’ movies, ‘Abduction’ and the subgenre’s modern progenitor ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ are all examples, and where a mystery element plays a major narrative role.)
With their obvious elements of wish fulfilment for the audience, in terms of the main characters’ near-superhuman combat talents, this kind of film invariably winds up like a comic book. But instead of trying to downplay that aspect and offer some pretence at realism, ‘John Wick’ instead wisely embraces its four-colour qualities.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the movie’s attempt to sketch its own mythology based around the association of assassins to which Reeves’ titular hitman belongs. For instance, when Wick arrives in Manhattan to exact his revenge on obnoxious whelp Iosef8 (Alfie Allen9), he checks into The Continental, a hotel owned by the phlegmatic Winston (Ian McShane10), catering exclusively to contract killers.
8: (It’s Iosef who kills Wick’s dog, this being a particular problem due to said pooch being a last gift from his beloved late wife.)
9: (No offence to Allen but let’s just say he’s er, well-cast as contemptibly entitled.)
10: (In addition to McShane, there are also cameos from Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Adrianne Palicki – not to mention David Patrick Kelly of “Warrrrrrrrriors, come out to plaaaaaaay” legend, who plays a ghoulish murder scene cleaner.)
There are definite echoes of ‘Drive’ in ‘John Wick’. Both films, after all, follow a loner motivated by love as he wreaks havoc amidst the steel and glass towers of the contemporary cityscape, and indeed both take a major cue from the same big screen forbear, Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Samouraï’.
Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish slice of hipster bait, this is a movie which displays surprising depth in the portrayal of its story’s ostensible villain. In this case, that’s Russian crime-boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), a man who happens to be Wick’s former employer and Iosef’s father.
Looking like Billy Bragg squeezed into a razor-sharp suit11, ‘Dragon Tattoo’ star Nyqvist brings tremendous humour and pathos to what could so easily have been a clichéd role.
And as much as anything else served up by Stahelski and Leitch, it’s Viggo’s conflict between family duty and gangland honour that gives ‘John Wick’ a beating heart beneath the hyperkinetic action flurries.
11: (He bloody does you know.)
John Wick is out now in the UK.