Monday, November 10, 2014

Payback For The Next Generation: John Wick

The Good: Decent acting, Good action sequences, Cool protagonist and supporting characters
The Bad: Entirely simplistic plot
The Basics: After the death of his wife, the grieving John Wick finds himself drawn back into the criminal underground when a Russian mobster kills his dog and steals his car.

Every now and then, I find an action movie that is simplistic, but laudable, or at least easy to recommend and equally easy to enjoy. For many years, my gold standard of such movies has been Payback (reviewed here!). So, when I continued to hear good things about John Wick I decided to check it out. While I enjoyed the film, it is, for all intents and purposes, Payback remade.

John Wick is an equally straightforward action thriller and directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have a decent sense of style to make the film watchable. But they and writer Derek Kolstad are not winning any points for originality with the film. Instead, John Wick starts with a simplistic premise and, because of the film’s opening narrative conceit, works to the only logical conclusion an attentive viewer can expect. The film is enjoyable, but not highbrow, and the fact that it is set-up as a flashback robs the film of much of its spontaneity and suspense. That said, it succeeds as entertainment and as a surprisingly satisfying revenge flick.

Days after he buries his wife, John Wick is bloody and near-death; collapsing and he watches a video left by his lost love. The film flashes back to Helen’s death, John being visited by Marcus and receiving a posthumous gift from Helen; a dog. John slowly adapts to having Daisy in his house, life and car. After a young thug takes notice of John’s 1969 Mustang, he is visited in the night by the thugs who kill Daisy and take the car. The thug is Iosef Tarasov, son of the Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov and when Iosef takes John Wick’s car to Aurelio, even Aurelio wants nothing to do with it. The reason is simple; John Wick is an incredible assassin, the one who built Viggo Tarasov’s empire by eliminating his competition.

Learning the identity of the car thief, John Wick calls Viggo and when Viggo refuses to turn Iosef over to him (or make any sort of deal), Wick begins a spree of killing and destruction that puts him on a direct course for Iosef and Viggo. Viggo puts a bounty out on Wick’s head, but when the first waves of assassins are easily dispatched in Wick’s house, Wick moves into the criminal hotel. Protecting himself and the underground, Winston turns over the location of Iosef and that leads Wick to hunt the young man through Little Russia, destroying much of Viggo’s infrastructure and leverage in the process. Inspired by an ever-rising bounty, assassins like Perkins and Marcus turn on Wick, even in the confines of the protected hotel. Left on his own, John Wick tracks down the son and his father for revenge and to get the price lifted from his head.

John Wick is characterized beautifully by Viggo as “The man you send to kill the boogeyman.” The fear Aurelio and Viggo have relative to the apparently easy-to-subdue Wick is made understandable when Viggo’s initial barrage of men are wiped out with startling ease. John Wick is one of the few such films based upon an almost entirely believable premise; because Wick eliminated most of the mobsters and assassins in the City for Viggo, he knows Viggo’s weak spots and the surviving members of the underworld who are still active. As a result, he lets several people live (and they are grateful for the opportunity to run away) and he slays through the rest with ease.

The thing is, the initial attack on John Wick aside, John Wick is an entirely sensible movie so far as revenge movies go. Wick is retired from a lifestyle, but retains all of the skills and contacts he had. So, of course, he could get a clean-up crew to help him dispose of the bodies he racks up.

What makes John Wick more watchable than the average action revenge film – outside the realistic motivation of a man in mourning who continues to lose the things that are most important to him – is the general sense of realism to the film. John Wick may be the ultimate revenge fantasy, but Wick has to contend with realistic issues like police and hotel management calling him out for noise violations! Chaos does not ensue as fast in a loud Russian nightclub as it does in an otherwise empty house because of the loud music. The directors got the sound engineering absolutely right for a film where noise is a real-world problem.

Like Payback, John Wick has a delightful sense of irony as viewers watch the protagonist kill his way to the top while all the while wondering, “Why the hell didn’t this bad guy just give him what he wanted in the beginning?!” The problem with John Wick is that the viewer waits for the film to get back to where it began, knowing that – against all odds and reason – John Wick must survive until then.

On the plus side, John Wick has an excellent cast which is used well. Led by Keanu Reeves, John Wick includes the talents of Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick and Alfie Allen (as Iosef, a role that makes one wonder if the Game Of Thrones actor can play anything other than a terrified maniac). Reeves is great in the brooding role of John Wick and he sells the action scenes well. He and the supporting cast play off one another perfectly to create a very real sense of a world where this sort of thing happens all the time and people don’t get too terribly attached to one another.

Ultimately, John Wick is well-executed escapist entertainment, even if it is not particularly original.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
10,000 Days
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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