John Wick

Fred O’Connor provides ‘probably more analysis than a film like this needs‘ for Keanu Reeves’ dadsploitation movie, John Wick

As new words go ‘Dadsploitation‘ doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as we might like. It’s a sub-genre within action movies that has seen Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone all hit the gym and the reboot button on their anchor franchises over the last decade. The results have been mixed. Die Hard IV was a decent actioner, while Indy IV left many fans wondering if they could somehow erase the film from their memories and John Rambo was so many kinds of crazy no one cared. At the forefront of Dadsploitation is of course Liam Neeson, whose Taken series and a rake of similar offerings (Non-Stop, Run All Night) have propelled him from the supporting cast to one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men. What surprised many was the sudden appetite for an ultra-violent, middle-aged man who breaks necks but still manages to stay in touch with his feelings. These days it’s fairly standard for Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise or Christian Bale to brag about how many of their own stunts they did, but Keanu Reeves, who endured something like six months of intense martial arts training for the first Matrix film, deserves much of the credit for encouraging leading men to become stuntmen. Would the rebooted Batman and James Bond franchises have been as good if Bale and Craig had not committed so fully to the physicality of their characters? Although Reeves hasn’t exactly taken it easy in the years since the Matrix trilogy, there is a palpable sense that his latest offering, John Wick, is in many ways a return to form. And now that he’s over 50, the Neeson comparisons will be unavoidable from here on in.

John Wick is a violent film, but this is not meant as a criticism. Actually John Wick is the calibre of action film that tends to set the standard in the genre. Keanu Reeves is at his gun-toting best in the title role, with a rich supporting cast and Chad Stahelski – one of Hollywood’s most accomplished stuntmen – at the helm. John Wick marries the martial skill of Reeves’s previous blockbusters with the dark tone of a classic revenge caper. Combined they give the film’s fight sequences a lot of complexity but enough pain and spit to keep the story grounded. Lovers of intense hand to hand fighting, gun battles and good old-fashioned broken bones are in for a treat. 

The story follows John Wick – once a hit man for the mob, now a grieving widower and classic car enthusiast with a PhD in keeping himself to himself – who crosses paths with Russian mobster Iosef and his retinue of goons. Blissfully unaware of precisely who they are fucking with, Iosef and the goons beat John unconscious, trash his house, steal his car and brutalize an insanely cute puppy for good measure. From this point it is only a matter of time before the revenge express rolls into town, as John digs up the weapons, gadgets and gold coins that were once the trappings of his old life as New York’s toughest mob assassin. This is a man whose epic misdeeds are the stuff of legend among underworld figures from bosses down to bartenders – with the convenient exception of Iosef and his goons of course, who for some reason have no idea who John Wick is until after they have been permanently added to his list of enemies. In steps Iosef’s father Viggo, a battle-hardened mob boss, caught in the all-too-familiar trap of defending his spoiled, idiotic son against the most dangerous weapon ever created: the indestructible Hollywood leading man. Viggo, who clearly hasn’t seen Road to Perdition, decides to soldier up and weather the storm rather than give up his son.

What follows is a thrilling, but fairly predictable story that impresses and entertains but rarely surprises. That said, the film has an endearing visual style, filled with mysterious beautiful people in retro hotels, gleaming cars, signature hand guns and impeccably-dressed henchmen. The eye always has something to feast on, even when the bullets aren’t flying, and the film’s rich production design forms an ever-changing backdrop for Wick’s epic beat downs. Without a doubt, John Wick is an impressive directorial debut from Chad Stahelski. Having served as Keanu’s stunt double on the Matrix trilogy, Stahelski worked on several other films with the Wachowskis and more recently has worked as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on major franchises like The Hunger Games and The Expendables. Stahelski has created a solid action movie that any seasoned director could be proud of. The martial arts and gun battles flow with a confidence and raw aggression reminiscent of The Raid or Oldboy and are complimented by an energetic shooting style where the camera regularly pans and tilts sharply in perfect time with the punches and flying bodies.

But as impressive as all of this is, John Wick, like many before it, exists only as a vehicle for the action sequences. The plot is a tried and tested revenge story, populated with the archetypal henchmen, femme fatale, grizzled veteran, ultimate boss and broken-hearted tough guy that make the cash register sing these days. Instead of a story that ends when you think things have reached some sort of resolution, this film trundles on into more action set pieces, presumably because there haven’t been enough torture scenes or horrific injuries yet.

However, one of the things that keeps this film out of Jason Statham territory is its impressive supporting cast. Michael Nyquist, who some will recognise from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Mission Impossible 4, is charismatic and somewhat menacing as Wick’s nemesis, Viggo Tarasov. Alfie Allen, who Game of Thrones fans will know as Theon Greyjoy, here sticks to familiar territory as Iosef, the insecure son of a severe and disapproving father. Willem Dafoe does the business as Wick’s confidante/sidekick and John Leguizamo does himself proud as New York’s best dressed mechanic. Wire favourites Lance Reddick (Lt. Daniels) and Clarke Peters (Lester Freeman) pop in to remind us that even for the tiny roles the producers had a big stack of cash to spend. Similarly Ian McShane makes an appearance but his character has so few lines he could probably work out how much he got paid per word without a calculator. Because John Wick’s stylized underworld is populated with so many familiar faces and talented players, even the minor scenes have something to keep you interested, with strong performances throughout and a lightness in tone that helps balance out the violence.

There is more than enough excitement to make this a really entertaining film but it does begin to lose energy by the third act. This might be because it’s predecessors had something more tangible for the hero to fight for. Taken’s hero can’t rest until he has his daughter back. In Oldboy the mystery underpinning the whole story keeps you engaged. The Raid’s hero is fighting for his life practically every moment he is on screen. Even though John Wick is seldom out of peril, he isn’t ever really fighting for anything meaningful. Wick has no loved ones to save and the stolen car (one of the causes of all the fuss to begin with) barely gets a mention after he finds a replacement. After a while it feels like he’s fighting because he has nothing better to do with his life – sort of like he can walk away whenever he wants, hit contracts be damned. Wick is an empty husk of a man who has already lost the one thing that gave his life meaning. He has no higher calling, like defending the innocent or averting some major atrocity, and no amount of fighting will change that. So although the final action scenes give the film an entertaining finale it never feels like John Wick has achieved anything other than a high body count.

This is probably more analysis than a film like this needs. For any fan of action John Wick is one not to miss. The ass-kicking takes a while to get going but once it does the action is intense and always interesting. John takes his fair share of hits, paying dearly for every victory, which is probably why the film and its no-nonsense hero are so likable.

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