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John Wick

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // October 24, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 23, 2014 | E-mail the Author
While Hollywood's budgets get bigger and bigger, a new trend in low-budget movies has emerged: films that promise to go "back to basics," sanding away all the unnecessary flash and excess of studio genre pictures to revel in core, visceral pleasures. The most common of these throwbacks is the action movie, which only requires a few semi-recognizable faces, a strong stunt team, some locations to shoot in, and a camera to capture it with. It's a fine idea on paper, but most of these films, many of which are helmed by first-time directors, fall short of the basics they're meant to be going back to. If a film is going to rely on little more than physical pyrotechnics to thrill its audience, the person behind the camera needs to have a precise and detailed understanding of how to give each blow the requisite oomph, to make each bone-cracking second count. When they don't, it's a slog, exacerbated by the fact that these kinds of pictures tend to play the "cool" film festivals, to primed audiences already tired and / or drunk from a day of movie-watching, a demographic easily susceptible to hype. All this is to say that the enthusiasm I'm about to unleash for John Wick is not a fluke, an accident, or an exaggeration. This movie delivers.

The plot is as simple as they come: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a world-class mob killer who left his position in the organization to live a normal life. When his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), dies of cancer, John is an emotional wreck, but the next day a surprise gift arrives: an impossibly cute puppy, purchased by Helen in advance as a parting gift, with the hope that caring for it will allow John to heal. It sounds like a good plan, and John is willing to give it a shot, but on his first day out and about, a group of young punks encounters John and the pup out for a drive in John's classic Mustang. They follow him home, break in, steal the car, and kill the dog. It's a mistake the gangsters will live to regret.

The first thing that John Wick gets right that other genre exercises get wrong is that in the absence of a meaty story, a film needs fun and memorable characters, and for fun and memorable characters, it helps to cast fun and memorable people. Others would've tried to coast John Wick on Reeves and maybe one other actor alone, but the film is stocked from top to bottom with fun faces: Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki ("Friday Night Lights"), Dean Winters (those "Mayhem" Allstate commercials), Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters ("The Wire"), Randall Duk Kim (The Matrix Reloaded), WWE star Kevin Nash, and David Patrick Kelly ("Twin Peaks") all turn up in bit roles, each one adding an element of flavor and personality to the film. With such an impressive roster of fun and funny bit parts, the scope of the film feels a bit wider, as if the world of the movie exists beyond the edges of the frame.

On top of all of the actors already mentioned, the film is practically stolen by Michael Nyqvist as Viggo Tarasov. Viggo is the father of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the leader of the three men who beat up John and killed his beloved pet. He's also John Wick's former boss, the one man in the entire world most aware of who John is and what he's capable of. Nyqvist made for a passable, utilitarian villain in the highly entertaining Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but here he really gets a chance to have a ball. Every scene with Viggo is utterly delightful, with the character's increasing paranoia -- to him, John is so threatening as to literally be "The Boogeyman" in the bedtime stories they tell to mob children -- adding to the film's dry sense of humor. It's a performance that calls back to Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Dennis Hopper in Speed, antagonists whose bold eccentricities only make their back-and-forth with the protagonist that much sweeter.

Despite all of this, John Wick would be nothing if it didn't deliver in terms of the action, but rest assured, it's every bit as exhilarating as great action should be. Forget the mannered formality of Kurt Wimmer's gunkata, Wick co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (the latter credited as a producer thanks to union rules) bring their years of experience as stuntmen to the table in bringing the fight sequences to life. John's movements are simultaneously rough and fluid, with the character leaping and sliding over obstacles in order to wrap his legs around a perp's head and slam him to the ground, and he is in no way stingy when it comes to bullets, popping each attacker three or four times for good measure, without a moment of hesitation. It's the perfect role for Reeves, who has always been more of a physical performer than an emotional one. He puts forth enough to hint at his character's heartbreak, but most of the film relies on his sleek, catlike presence while blowing people away. Since 2008, Liam Neeson's cranked out nearly ten of these flicks, and none of them are half as good as this one -- simply put, John Wick beats the competition to a bloody pulp.

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Highly Recommended

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