"They don't make them like they used to," is a common axiom that is spouted in regards to motion pictures, particularly films in the action genre. While it's true that superheroes and science fiction have sublimated the genre, there are still occasional surprises that manage to reinvigorate those of us who enjoy clever gunplay and brutally straightforward story. John Wick is such a film, and exceeds even those standards to become something outlandishly noteworthy. As far as I'm concerned, it's unquestionably the best action film of 2014, and maybe even one of the best that the entire decade will produce.
I've seen a lot of reviews calling the film stupid, but doing so in a positive way. This is disgustingly incorrect. John Wick isn't stupid, it's simple. In a cinematic landscape where everything needs to have an origin story or be overtly explained to the audience, the smooth execution of John Wick's narrative and world are creatively refreshing. So much so, that its uncluttered nature looks silly or childish compared to what mostly passes as action films these days. It's within that simplicity that John Wick is allowed to let loose. It reminded me a lot of the best aspects of Neveldine/Taylor films, but far more focused and streamlined. A lot of that comes from debut directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who were stuntmen in the movie business and brought that kind of visceral flare to the construction of the film.
And this is a immaculately constructed film, starting with Derek Kolstad's trim and somewhat mythic script. The world of John Wick feels like something out of a Brian Azzarello comic book, with a criminal world that feels just as vibrant, full of life and fantastic as a superheroic one. What's great is that the world and its rules aren't drilled into your head by some huge exposition dump, but rather through small and mostly visual moments. It gives the film the feeling that it lives in a universe just slightly to left of ours. The filmmakers have taken graphic novel and video game attitudes and injected them into a classic revenge tale, making everything familiar and fresh at the same time.
That revenge tale is masterfully carried by Keanu Reeves as the protagonist, John Wick. John Wick is the Michael Myers of action heroes, an unstoppable force of death and destruction that everyone in this criminal underworld knows and fears. He's even referred to as The Boogeyman, and Reeves plays the role with the most intense menace he's ever portrayed. What proves that Reeves is a great actor (and not the one note joke most of the populace sees him as) is that he can make an unapproachable character like John Wick be intimidating, humorous, sweet, sad and ridiculously badass throughout the course of the film. This is going to be one of the roles Reeves is remembered for.
It's also incredibly intelligent of the filmmakers to cast a lot of great actors in smaller roles, ensuring that those characters are just as memorable. Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, David Patrick Kelly, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters all have what are at best supporting roles, but bring their A-list acting ability to the table and help to shape a world that is as compelling as the story being told in it.
Most importantly for a film like this is the action. The action in John Wick, for lack of a more erudite explanation, kicks ass. There's a succinct execution to the way the action scenes play out. Nothing feels like a big flourish or even that preposterous. However, it's within this sleek framework that the filmmakers are able to infuse savage choreography that also has the grace of a ballet. This mindset makes every action sequence engaging and energetic, feeding off of its own raw kinetic art. There hasn't been such exciting and cathartic violence since 2011's The Raid.
They'll never again make them exactly like they used to. That's impossible since the technologies and styles of filmmaking are always evolving. What you can realistically hope for is a film that maintains that old school spirit but is imbued with new school tricks. John Wick is that exact kind of experience. It's an adrenaline and testosterone cocktail that doesn't slack off in the character or world-building department in order to splurge on the action. Everything is meticulously balanced and accomplished with a palpable passion for the product being formed. I was silently pumping my fists and holding back cheers during the entire running time. I laughed, I cried, I nodded my head with a vicarious affirmation of John Wick's bad guy disposing, and as the credits rolled, I wanted nothing more than to immediately watch the film again. Don't wait until this comes out for home viewing. See it in the best theater you can. John Wick deserves it.