There has been a recent glut of like-for-like action films post-Oscar season, all with seemingly interchangeable plots and actors offering up an illusion of ‘something new’ and yet falling short of providing anything original - or even worse - anything entertaining.
With John Wick it is the turn of Keanu Reeves to see if he can not only make somewhat of a career comeback but also reinvigorate a genre that seems to have hit the ‘cruise-control’ button of late. With what is - quite simply - the tale of an ex-hitman forced back into the life he abandoned for domestic bliss after everything is taken away from him, the 50 year-old Reeves is aiming to prove there is still a place for him in the market and that he can do anything that Liam Neeson or Sean Penn can.
First-time directors Chad Stahelski & David Leitch may be relative novices with regards to actually helming a major cinematic release but what the two former stunt-men have is a plethora of experience - with The Bourne franchise, The Matrix Trilogy, The Wolverine and Fight Club all adding to an impressive CV of past work that bodes well for this type of fare. What also helps the apprentice film-makers is the extraordinarily straight-forward plot which allows them to concentrate purely on the action set-pieces and ensure that the pop-corn entertainment levels are as strong as they can possible be.
There are no surprises on display here and the narrative never strays from what is a simple revenge story that is expertly summed up by the pieces main antagonist Viggo Tarasov (The Girl with the dragon tattoo’s Michael Nyqvist) “John will come for you and you will do nothing because there is nothing you can do”. We know exactly what is going to happen, and roughly how everything will play out but the fun comes in watching it all play out - and the film-makers ensure that we get exactly what it is we came for.
The action sequences are superbly choreographed - with a style heavily influenced by the “gun-fu” of Honk Kong action cinema - and it is easy to see the stunt-man influence with the relentless energy and adrenaline-fuelled action that is a constant throughout. John Wick has the lot; gripping car-chases, fist-pounding smackdowns and riveting gun-play - all set against a superbly chosen sound-track which adds up to one of the most unashamedly entertaining films of 2015 so far.
By keeping it simple and not taking itself too seriously, John Wick never falls into the trap of attempting to be anything other than what it is. Too many modern action films try too hard to bring extra gravitas and attempt to tread a more dramatic path but in doing so they forget the very ingredients that fans of the genre hold so dear. That is far from a problem here as the action is always furiously frenetic, at times balletic, and never anything but thrilling.
The films simplicity is to be admired and is an indication of what can be achieved when a film knows it’s audience and doesn’t attempt to give them anything other than what it is they came for. In a world of cinematic complexity where the money-makers are constantly clamouring for something different to stand out amongst the competition it is ironically a film that doesn’t try anything new which hoists itself high above it’s recent competitors. This is old-school action at it’s best and the perfect example of how less can sometimes be much, much more.
Any deep, underlying themes, such as the hinted notions that our sins always catch up with us in one form or another, are only ever touched upon and there is no deep internalisation on show here - which again only seeks to improve the films appeal as a pure entertainment piece. This is switch-your-mind-off stuff and aslong as there are no preconceptions about exactly what it is we are getting then there is very little chance of leaving the cinema with anything other than a feeling of having been entertained.
Visually, there is also a strong indication that the film-makers have a keen eye for aesthetics in addition to their evident skills in producing knuckle-bruising skirmishes.
Due in large part to the excellent cinematography of Jonathan Sela, Wick’s world is one of dark, colour-drained neon which not only provides a brooding, menacing undertone but also adds an element of film noir and an overall comic-book feel to proceedings. These dark, gloomy streets could just as easily be Gotham rather than the New York setting that the film actually incorporates - and further reference towards the Dark Knight could also be sought with the cartoonish subtitles that feature amongst most of the Russian dialogue harking back to the days when Adam West’s caped crusader filled our screens.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that the creators have been heavily influenced by the graphic novel world but that isn’t to say that John Wick is as dark or ponderous as the recent Batman franchise as there are indeed numerous moments of levity provided for us - none more so than the surroundings of The Continental Hotel which acts as an up-market safe-house for the contract killers of the world. Staffed by Lance Reddick’s affable concierge - in what is yet more evidence that the former The Wire man deserves far more screen material than he has been bafflingly provided - The Continental becomes the source of numerous quirky moments that provide more than enough light-hearted exchanges to punctuate the kinetic action.
Whilst there is ample support from an impressive cast of minor players (the aforementioned Reddick and Nyqvist are particular stand-outs) this is Reeves movie to carry and all eyes are on him along with the pressure of making what is a risky comeback in a market that has been somewhat taken over by Liam Neeson of late.
Fortunately - in what is indeed a fine return to form - Reeves delivers a gentle dig in the ribs to remind us all that he is still around and provides us with what will no doubt be an iconic anti-hero who isn’t muddled by layers of complexity. We know exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing and we can enjoy him actually doing it without being swamped in moments of angst or emotional grand-standing. Reeves is given a mono-syllabic, all business protagonist who’s every action is calculated and lives by the mantra that actions speak louder than words. Coincidentally, this mono-syllabilism also helps a lead actor who has undoubted charisma but has often been accused of lacking range - this is the perfect role for him in more ways than one and he grasps the opportunity with both hands.
Any negatives are minor - unlike most action films there is never a danger of it leading into over the top territory and whenever John Wick flirts dangersouly with this it is always with a tongue-in-cheek nature that gives the impression that the film-makers are giving a knowing wink in our direction. You could also argue that due to this being Reeves’ vehicle there are certain actors that are under-used. Adrienne Palicki really seems to have been shoe-horned into a role that appears as nothing more than a distraction and it would have been interesting to see if Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen could of expanded on the big-screen promise that he hints at in his brief appearances as Viggo’s son Iosef but it seems harsh to criticise a film for not exploring character development when it has already been established that the lack of complexity is what makes John Wick so compelling in the first place. Overall, these are nit-picky complaints to what is an unquestionable success and a rare example of genre film-making that stays true to itself.
Shortly before the release of John Wick it was announced that the character will return with a sequel and if his second coming is anywhere near as entertaining as his first then it will be well worth the wait when it arrives.
“People keep asking me if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer” elicits Wick to his enemies in one scene “but yeah, I’m thinking ‘I’m back’” he concludes.
After this, Reeves can now pretty much say the same thing.