47 Ronin ended up being a disappointment for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest was the botched return to action for Keanu Reeves, whose ho-hum performance as a thwarted samurai gets lost in a mess of computer-generated waywardness and script meddling. His brand of earnest stoicism has frequently worked to his advantage in other roles at various points in his career, yet he's struggled to find the right niche for his talent over the past ten or so years. Then, Man of Tai Chi emerged on the scene trumpeting his enthusiasm for the B-movie and martial-arts spectrum, including a performance from himself as a mysterious and intimidating underground player with fighting skills. Turns out, Reeves didn't need the scope and grandeur of another Hollywood-budget franchise (another Matrix, if you will) to mount his cinematic riposte, but the smaller-scale, hard-hitting energy of tailored combat and no-nonsense gunfire. That's where John Wick enters the picture.
After viewing the initial trailer for the directing debut of stunt designers/coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there's an immediate hook that already makes one grin at the film's premise, where a trained killer sets out for revenge against the home invaders who killed his dog. Now, clearly, there's more to it than that: that skilled assassin once belonged to an organized crime ring and removed himself from it after falling in love with his wife (Bridgette Moynahan), to which the dog served as a way of soothing the pain after her death. Therefore, the dog's demise -- which was caused by the son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), of one of the organization's key players, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) -- signifies more than just a small spark of revenge in John's eyes, but a call back to the world he abandoned for something personal. Yet, the playful idea that an ex-assassin's tearing through the underworld based on vengeance for his dog's murder carries through the rest of the story, even playfully referenced throughout ... though it's far from a joking matter.
The script from B-movie action writer Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber; The Package) concentrates on telling an empathetic story of John Wick's "retirement" at first, succeeding more than expected from the premise. It makes you really feel for Wick's anguish and the unwanted solace that his new companion offered before a very carefully-shot death scene, legitimately fueling his resolve to enter back into the world through an unpretentiously heartbreaking backstory. Once he's drawn back in, Kolstead's humor and world-building take over, crafting an eccentric network of espionage that's different from the typical stiff cloak-and-dagger assassin material, developing a stylish outlook on currency, safe spots, and guidelines. See, everybody knows John Wick, and not in a fearful kind of way: entering old haunts, especially the regulated Continental hotel, and reaching out to old contacts works almost like a fond reunion than a bunch of people brushing elbows with the boogeyman, enriching John Wick's character through their sympathy and esteem while proving that he wasn't exactly a heartless machine in his previous life, despite his lethal reputation.
That reputation is justified, though, observed in Wick's first combat situation after being out of the game for a while. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make it abundantly clear that they aren't interested in flashy clouds of missed bullets and elaborate martial-arts choreography filled with blocked punches and kicks, instead emphasizing precise brutality through their quasi-realistic grasp on violence. The resulting action in John Wick is sharp and bloody, a fusion of strategic grappling in the vein of judo and jiu-jitsu with gunplay that purposefully interweaves with Wick's maneuvers, with Keanu Reeves conducting the bulk of the physical work himself. The accomplishments of the action don't begin and end with the violence, either: Stahelski and Leitch also display an impeccable eye for the geography of highly-stylized locations, paired with judicious-yet-colorful cinematography that maintains a lucid viewpoint on the ramifications of what's going on. A fierce blue-tinted scene in an elaborate nightclub, powered by a pair of sublime electronic musical tracks and clear admiration for the work of John Woo, alone cements the film's shrewdness as a pure action film.
The calculated disposition of an assassin with a broken heart turns out to be an excellent vessel for Keanu Reeves' range, playing to his strengths with a character who exhibits restrained emotionality and picks and chooses his words very carefully. Wick's stoicism doesn't drag the film's personality down, though: his, uh, colleagues elevate the tempo with well-drawn and capricious characteristics, from Adrianne Palicki's formidable poise as Ms. Perkins to Willem Dafoe's enigmatic camaraderie as Marcus. Nothing's really cut and dry among them, not even with Wick's nemesis and ex-employer, Viggo, whom The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist filters a healthy amount of idiosyncrasy through his recital of Russian limericks and his prevalent, almost sympathetic fear of the ex-assassin. Their enigmatic motives and crossings over the lines of honor end up shaping the atmosphere more than the anti-hero's own actions, as Wick's path towards the undeniably unlikable Iosef transforms into an elaborate string of responses to how the criminal underworld corrects any faults in its ecosystem.
Style certainly triumphs over substance in John Wick, sure, and it's not completely devoid of action-movie cliches; a handful of questionable missed bullets and dubious Bond villain-esque stalls in executing plans keep the plot alive longer than it should, which stand out more given the dogged pragmatism Chad Stahelski and David Leitch telegraph everywhere else. The meticulousness and general panache crafted from start to finish far exceed those misgivings, however, where the straightforward poeticism behind Wick's story -- smartly encapsulated in an affecting framing device -- reaches a full-throttle and cathartic conclusion for his tormented disposition. Whether this marks a new renaissance in Keanu Reeves' career remains to be seen, but it goes to show that his modest demeanor and enthusiasm for the genre can still thrive with the right kind of role throttling him forward, amounting to one of the sharpest and winsome action films to emerge over the past couple of years.
Video and Audio:
... eh. Sometimes, there are DVD discs that have been handled with the right amount of digital polish to make one forget about a high-definition counterpart, something Summit/Lionsgate's been pretty good about in the past. Their transfer for John Wick, on the other hand, isn't quit hitting the bullseye in the same way. Sure, its 2.35:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer gets the mood of the film right, accurately capturing the blasts of neon red in a cobalt-tinted nightclub, the steely grayish-blue cast of most outdoor sequences, and the pools of warm orange light in darker-lit sequences. Despite those few stronger exterior sequences that speak to the contrary, detail isn't really that strong across the board, bouncing between only moderately clear to a noticeable haze in darker-lit sequences. Aliasing can be spotted in straight lines (details on bridges, in suits and ties, etc.), while edge halos appear here and there when the contrast gets complicated. Black levels have some grain, but they're mostly respectful to visible details, and skin tones are always pretty accurate. On a format with twenty years under its belt, John Wick looks pretty ho-hum.
Thankfully, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track picks up the slack for the visual transfer. John Wick sports a tremendous number of opportunities for all spectrums of the sound design to really shine: potent hits with a firearm, rough-and-tumble fistfights, shattered glass, sledgehammer blasts, and the rumble of that beautiful classic Mustang's engine. Every single effect telegraphed in the track hits the mark, occasionally sporting some bass that'll rattle your chest and piercing clarity (sniper shots through windows and into their targets are especially poignant). But it's also the little details that slip in from the balance that make it a success, like the flutter of rain and the tinkle of a dog's collar, or the mechanical grinding in a chop shop and the ruffle of a plastic bag over a head mid-combat. Dialogue rings out clear as a whistle and largely isn't impacted by the music's volume, while subtler sound effects are also well-balanced against the track. The shiny new Atmos option on the Blu-ray is a beast, but this Dolby Digital offering is also an incredibly impressive legacy track. Language and optional subtitle options are available in both English and Spanish.
There are few pretty solid extras available for John Wick on the Blu-ray, featuring Keanu Reeves' training period and the directing duo's dedicated and passionate conceptualization process, but none of them make an appearance on this bare-boned DVD from Summit/Lionsgate. Not even a trailer.
I've already said enough about the positive merits of the surprisingly good John Wick, but I'll touch on a few of them again. Keanu Reeves makes a return to the action genre in a big way -- this time successfully! -- telegraphing gritty and mostly-practical action through the solid, sympathetic concept of a widower ex-assassin drawn back into the business ... after someone involved in his old syndicate kills his dog. Stunt veterans Chad Stahelski and David Leitch don't waste the opportunity to telegraph their own brand of action in their first feature film, blending grappling martial-arts with "gun fu" for sensationally hard-hitting sequences through a few eye-catching locations. While the story isn't much beyond the surface, there's enough feeling in there to keep it moving throughout Wick's bloody, brutal return to his old life. Summit/Lionsgate's DVD looks alright and sounds phenomenal, but it's missing all the special features from the Blu-ray. If you can, opt for the Blu-ray; if you can't, the film's quality itself and the ferocious Dolby Digital track earn this one a firm Recommendation.