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The directorial debut of Chad Stahelski (a prolific stunt coordinator/stunt double who has worked on everything from The Matrix to The Crow to The Expendables), 2014's John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the titular character. When the film begins, his wife passes away from a terminal illness. Before she shuffles off this mortal coil, however, she arranges to have a puppy and a final note delivered to their home. Why? So that he can learn to love again, starting with this adorable little beagle. It's a pretty corny opening chunk, but stick with it. See, once we get that out of the way with a young Russian wannabe gangster type named Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) and his punk friends bust into John's house to steal his vintage '69 Mustang. When he confronts them, they beat the snot out of him and kill his dog. Bad move.
It turns out that Isoef is the son of a powerful New York City mobster named Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the same man who used to employ John as a hit man before he retired to live a calm life with his dearly departed missus. Viggo employs a chop shop operator named Aureilo (John Leguizamo) who recognizes the car when Iosef brings it in and sends him away. Viggo realizes that Isoef has opened up a massive can of worms and that Wick will come gunning for him. He calls Wick to try and talk him out of it but he's a determined man. Before you know it, Viggo has asked an aging but efficient assassin named Marcus to eliminate Wick for the cool sum of two million dollars in cash, and Wick has checked into a strange Manhattan hotel run by a man named Winston (a woefully underused Ian McShane) that caters only to assassins. Wick's about to re-enter the fray in a big, big way. Isoef is going to pay for what he did, and so will anyone who gets in his way, but he's going to have to watch out not only for Viggo's literal army of gunmen but a foxy female assassin named Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) as well.
Reminiscent at times of the mighty Point Blank (for some of us the standard by which all American revenge films shall be judged!), this movie, once it hits its stride, is a relentless hour and forty minutes of Keanu Reeves playing a complete bad ass. He doesn't do so well with the ‘emotional' setup (but he doesn't do terribly either) but once it's time to grab that sledgehammer and dig up the guns he'd buried five years prior, he turns into the coolest killer this side of Alain Delon but with the proficiency of Chow Yun Fat and the sheer determination of Lee Marvin. The movie pulls from films like Le Samourai, The Killer and Point Blank and manages to stand proudly alongside them. It's hard ass movie, the kind that puts style over substance and hard-hitting, brutal action sequences over narrative but if you're in the right frame of mind for it, John Wick is fairly sublime.
Reeves looks good here. He obviously prepared for the role and he not only handles the firearms in the movie nicely but handles himself in the hand to hand combat scenes with impressive flair and skill as well. He doesn't have tons of dialogue but the movie plays to his strengths in that way: let him look good and kick ass. He does this well. He's surrounded by a solid supporting cast too. Adrianne Palacki's character doesn't add much but she's fun to look at and provides a nice foil to a few of the other characters in the movie. Willem Dafoe is a lot of fun as the grizzled, aging associate from Wick's past while John Leguizamo does what he does here well, standing up to mouthy Iosef in a key scene if not really doing a whole lot more than that, aside from giving Wick a sweet ride on his Mustang's been stolen. Ian McShane is great here, but he's great in everything. It's just a shame that we didn't get to see more of him. The film leaves things open for a sequel and if that happens (and it should, for Keanu's sake!) let's hope that they rectify that. As far as the bad guys go, Alfie Allen is just fine as the mouthy smart-ass tough guy who has no idea what he's unleashed with his assault on Wick. He plays obnoxious and spoiled very well, which is the whole point. Nyqvist is more impressive as his father, however. He knows his son doesn't have a lot of time left and while he does what he can to save him, he knows it's a lost cause. This gives Nyqvist the chance to emote a bit whereas most of the other characters in the movie are too busy killing one another to get that opportunity.
Shot on location in New York City, this is a slick, shadowy movie. It's tough as nails, ridiculously entertaining and it harkens back to the glory days of seventies revenge films without feeling like its ripping anyone off or like it's a faux-grindhouse project. This one should appeal to anybody who likes a good action movie. Those looking for depth need not apply, but as far as cinematic adrenaline rushes go, this one is top notch.
John Wick arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.40.1 widescreen. As this was shot on high end digital video cameras there's obviously no problem with print damage or dirt. As to the detail and texture offered by the transfer, it's pretty strong across the board though keep in mind that this film is very dark in style and that there are times where post production color tweaking to keep that dark style moving can sap out some detail. Thankfully, that's the exception rather than the rule and most of the movie looks great, showing very nice detail, depth and texture, there are just a few shots that don't quite get there for the reason just explained. The disc is free of any obvious edge enhancement and there are no problems to note with any serious compression artifacts and black levels are solid. Color reproduction, when not tweaked, looks good and when tweaked looks… slick. This is a nice looking movie, it's just not always all that natural looking. It definitely works in the context of the story told though and once you get used to the movie's style, it really starts to grow on you. This transfer is rock solid and it suits the movie perfectly..
The main track on the disc is an English language Dolby Atmos 7.1 track although a dubbed option is are provided in Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and an alternate English track in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles are available in English SDH, English and Spanish. The lossless track on the disc is fantastic and it's pretty much constantly reference quality. The aggressive sound design in the movie doesn't just stem from the bullets in the shoot out scenes but from the cars, the background noise in a nightclub, and the score. The movie's very few quiet scenes have nicely balanced levels and the dialogue is crisp and clear throughout but it's the near constant barrage of action sequences that really shine here. Bass is strong and powerful without burying other elements and the gun shots pack real firepower. Some lines spoken in Russian have strange comic book style subtitles that appear on the screen automatically.
Director Chad Stahelski and Producer David Leitch start the supplements off with a good audio commentary that explains what went into getting this movie made. Leitch talks about the casting and the script, Stahelski about working with the actors, shooting on location in New York City, the importance of some of the different set pieces, and more. They cover the way that the movie uses color in different ways, how some of the more intricate fight and shoot out scenes were put together and some of the stunts that were needed to bring the story to life. There's a good amount of information here and they deliver it all in a casual but consistently interesting manner.
From there we move on to a series of fairly brief featurettes, starting with a fifteen minute piece called Don't F#ck With John Wick which basically just shows off how the fight sequences, shoot outs and stunt sequences were put together in such a way as to make Reeves look like the most bad ass man to ever walk the planet. It's interesting stuff and worth checking out. Calling In The Cavalry spends twelve minutes showing off what some of the behind the scenes players involved in the picture did, focusing on getting the producers onboard to bank roll the film, some of the technical minds behind the picture and some of the second unit work that was done to flesh things out in the finished product. The six minute long Destiny Of A Collective featurette takes a look at the working relationship that exists between Stahelski and Leitch and why it works as well as it does on this picture, while the five minute Assassin's Creed gives us a look at the code of honor that some of the movie's characters take more seriously than others. The nightclub sequence, a highlight of the picture, gets the spotlight for six minutes in The Red Circle where we see some behind the scenes bits and talking heads that elaborate on the details of putting this together, while NYC Noir spends an additional six minutes showcasing the New York City locations used in the picture and elaborating on the important role that they play in the movie itself.
Aside from that we get a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Lionsgate properties, animated menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release we also get a DVD version of the movie in the Blu-ray case as well as a download code for a Digital HD copy of the film. The case fits nicely inside a cardboard slipcover that features identical artwork to that used on the case's cover slip.
John Wick spends about twenty-minutes or so wallowing in cornball melodrama in an attempt to give us some character motivation to get behind. It works well enough that once the action comes, we're in for the duration. The movie is, once it hits that point, a relentlessly violent piece of revenge cinema that is gripping and tense and exciting and just flat out fun. Through reality out the window and don't sweat the small stuff. This is an action movie done right. The Blu-ray from Lionsgate offers up the picture with great audio and video quality and a decent enough selection of extras too. If you dig shoot'em ups, consider this one highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.