Thursday 26 March 2015

John Wick: A fun but formulaic revenge thriller


John Wick
Directors: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Willem Defoe, Michael Nyqvist
Running time: 101 mins

Are there any Keanu Reeves fans in the United Kingdom who won’t have seen this already? I only ask because John Wick was released in the US back in October last year but has only now – six months later – made it to UK cinemas. That’s despite a positive critical response (83 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) and what marketing a-holes would undoubtedly call “good internet buzz”. Clearly someone at Warner Brothers didn’t get all those memos about illegal downloading.

The film itself is a fun but formulaic revenge thriller. Ghastly foreigners (those vodka-guzzling, Vladimir Putin-loving Russians this time) do unpleasant things to Reeves and his cute pet puppy (a final gift from his recently-deceased wife) without realising he’s the titular Wick – a legendary retired assassin with a very particular set of skills that he has acquired over a very long career. They are also unaware he will look for them, find them, and kill them. As a consequence, lots of people are shot, stabbed and bludgeoned – or often a combination of all three – as Wick runs amok.

Reeves does the brooding, taciturn action hero better than most and he’s on good form again here; selling his character’s emotional vulnerability every bit as powerfully as his thirst for face-pummelling, bollock-crunching vengeance. He’s backed up by an impressive cast, including Ian McShane, Willem Defoe Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, and Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, who has now surely cornered the market in playing horrible little shits begging for a prolonged and violent death.

The action scenes are what everyone’s been talking about Stateside and deservedly so because they are eye-poppingly brutal and therefore fantastic. They could not have been anything else though; Stahelski has a background as a stunt performer, kick-boxer and martial arts tutor, while his co-director Leitch has been a stunt performer or co-ordinator on movies such as 300, The Bourne Legacy, and The Midnight Meat Train. If anyone knows how to make frenetic fisticuffs look authentic, it’s those two.

John Wick’s most impressive sequence features Reeves chasing Allen through a packed nightclub, mercilessly dealing with any and all obstacles, whilst, simultaneously, being beaten to a bloody pulp himself. It’s relentless, breathtaking stuff up there with anything you’ll have seen directed by John Woo or in The Raid pictures. The sign of good movie violence is that it actually makes you flinch – this does, repeatedly.

In recent years the likes of Only God Forgives and Katalin Varga have successfully subverted the revenge thriller template. John Wick is a lot more straightforward - no time for existential angst or weird plot swerves here - but at least refuses to take itself too seriously. Seeking retribution for the death of a dog given to you by your deceased missus sounds more like a Weird Al Yankovic country and western parody than it does the plot to a movie, and there's a vein of black humour that runs right the away through.

Amidst the aggro, extreme aggro and further aggro, the film contains one great idea; that a complex criminal society exists right alongside our own, complete with its own infrastructure (hotels, bars, clubs) and even its own currency. As well as finding new ways to maim and murder, it’s this element I really hope they explore further in the inevitable sequel(s).

Rating: WW

John Wick is in UK cinemas from April 10


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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