Reviews

A Clunky Conclusion Prevents 'John Wick' From Being a Minor Classic

Photo: Keanu Reeves as John Wick

This straightforward revenge flick doesn't quite nail its blood-soaked final bow, but it nonetheless provides far more thrills than your typical run 'n' gun film.


John Wick

Director: David Leitch
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe,
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Year: 2014
US Release Date: 2015-02-03

The reason why you've been hearing so many good things about John Wick isn't because this is an action film that breaks boundaries, defies convention, or even tries anything remotely new. In a world where shoot-'em-ups try so hard to be clever with their action set pieces and one-liners, John Wick goes the opposite route and instead embraces every single action cliché that has ever existed. The fact that the film wears its conventions on its sleeve is what actually makes it so damn good, providing clarity and vision to a riveting series of action sequences.

"What clichés?" you ask? Every single possible one you can think of. A retired master assassin being brought back into the game against his will? Yep. Evil Russian crime lord? That's why Michael Nyqvist is here! Contract taken out on our hero? Done. Former sexy acquaintance who (gasp!) now wants to claim that bounty? Adrianne Palacki has got you covered. Fistfights in the rain? A game of violent cat-and-mouse set in an exclusive night club? Interrogating a hero while tied to a chair? Car chase on a dock at night? This list could keep going for hours, and literally every box would be ticked.

What John Wick does so well is place these genre tropes front and center, giving our titular hero an early beatdown at the hand of some single-minded thugs who only want to steal his car. From that point on, having not even had the chance to fire a single round, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) builds himself up to go on one last revenge mission, soon dealing with a hoard of mask-wearing, gun-toting goons arriving at his house in stylish, brutal, and intensely efficient means. This isn't a character that knocks the bad guy out, no. John Wick murders every single assailant that crosses his way, even while taking more than a few dings himself.

Part of the reason why the action in John Wick is so celebrated is because of who Reeves is as an actor. As directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski note in the director's commentary, instead of doing the rapid-fire editing that has become a dull ADD-staple of most modern day actioners. they opt instead for clean, unbroken long takes whenever possible, showing the action as it happens. Reeves, who trained for months for this role (something that's droned on about in the far-too-many featurettes in the Blu-ray set), he did a great majority of his own stunts, meaning that the crew didn't have to swap out stuntmen for every violent punch and kick, meaning that all of John Wick's set pieces have a clarity to them that is extremely engaging, the action retaining a certain "realness" that only a handful of classics have managed to achieve. From aerial leg takedowns to forms of "gun-fu" that don't feel far removed from the dynamics of Equilibrium, John Wick's set pieces are consistently and deliciously satisfying.

Even the story, strewn together from every other action film that has ever existed, works because it actually does take itself somewhat seriously, keeping the clichés out in the open so that it never feels too self-important, but also making sure to never cross over into the realm of absurdity. Leitch and Stahelski base all of the story scenes in a somewhat realistic context, never once veering off into the realm of the absurd. This is in marked contrast to 2007's Shoot 'Em Up or the Transporter series, which break credulity so often that the action sequences didn't even feel all that enjoyable.

In fact, John Wick would be damn close to a perfect action flick were it not for its laborious final stretch. Since Wick is out to get the son (Alfie Allen) of Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist) after stealing his car and killing his dog, a classic three-act structure is set in motion. In this case, it plays out thusly: Wick is beaten down (Act I), gets back into the game even with some setbacks (Act II), and then has a final confrontation with his enemy (Act III), which in this case is the son. However, after that arc plays out in a genuinely satisfying fashion, Wick still has unresolved issues with the elder Tarasov, which leads to a bloated, clunky Act IV that ultimately doesn't need to be there. Especially in its final minutes, it's obvious that screenwriter Derek Kolstad was rushed in trying to wrap up literally every plot point in a blood-spattered bow. The film, unfortunately, ends on a rather deflated note.

So while John Wick's sagging final portion prevents it from being the classic it could've been, it nonetheless provides far more thrills than your typical run 'n' gun film, proudly announcing Reeves' return to the realm of the viable action star after being lost in the wilderness for years on end. There isn't a whole lot of quotable dialogue on John Wick, but Reeves' declaration of "I'm thinking I'm back!" from the trailers proves to be a self-fulling prophecy of the best kind.

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