A Case For Better Action Movies: JOHN WICK (2014)

An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him. With New York City as his bullet-riddled playground, "John Wick" (Keanu Reeves) is a fresh and stylized take on the "assassin genre." 

I particularly share the opinion that the folks over at stunt training facility 87 Eleven Action Design are dog lovers. And I'm drawn to this possibility in noticing a bit of a pattern having caught one of their most recent shortfilms, Fetch, directed by action veteran and and stuntman Daniel Bernhardt, which plays off quite nicely as one way of telling a story that can generally relate to people. I mean, you have to be pretty soulless to not at least hold a special place inside for canines; I'm a dog lover myself, biased and shameless so... sorry not sorry. Alas, we are brought into the world of former hitman John Wick, four years into trying to turn over a new leaf only to have his world crumbling down around him. And of course, with Wick being the man he is, you can imagine what happens next.

This is just a general smidget of an idea for what you get in the new film directed and produced by the co-owners of 87 Eleven themselves, veteran stuntmen and 2nd unit directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, respectively. It's their feature debut as filmmakers after years of putting in their hard work as stuntmen, breaking their fair share of bones and coordinating stunts for a significant handful of Hollywood's biggest sellers, and for all intents and purposes, it pays off. Actor Keanu Reeves stars in the title role, reuniting with the directors in continuation of a long relationship following their work on the Wachowskis' 2000-2003 blockbuster sci-fi kung fu opera, The Matrix Trilogy. In the film, Reeves is a former criminal underworld hitman who's earned his keep, and the respect of many, even as he's moved on his new life in New Jersey, and his new wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). 

Their wedded bliss turns tragic when Helen falls ill and passes away, leaving Wick to grieve and mourn her death alone in a life of uncertainty. However, in her final moments, it turns out Helen knew him more than he expected; A kennel arrives at Wick's doorstep with a touching pre-written card from Helen. Her parting gift: A loving Beagle named Daisy who grows onto her new owner very quickly from the moment Wick lets her out of their Kennel. She becomes his new alarm clock and breakfast buddy, and for what it's worth, the one thing Wick needed to hold onto the happiness Helen wanted for him. But, nevertheless, fate awaits Wick at a place none other than a gas station where he soon crosses paths with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) and his two cohorts. Soon enough, Wick's second chance at a new life is snatched away from him when Iosef and his goons break into his home, steals his vintage Ford Mustang and kill Daisy.

With Helen gone and Daisy's body left bludgeoned before his eyes, Wick is left with nothing more than (as Agent Smith once said)...purpose. That purpose itself carries a history which has not only made Wick one of the most respected people in the inner-circles of his former life, but has also made him a thing of legend, and the very reason for the success of mob boss Viggo (Michael Nyquist), head of the New York branch of the Russian mafia. Viggo knows of Wick's legend full well, unlike his unknowing son, Yosef, upon arriving to his lusterful bearings in New York City. But the reunion is shortlived as Viggo breaks it all down for Iosef, and it finally becomes clear - diplomacy is long dead...and Wick is coming home too.

Evidently, Viggo puts a price on Wick's head, and what ensues, of course, is the inevitable - an angry and methodical killer ravaging and savaging the Russian criminal underworld that once embodied his former self, signaled of course by the piling of bodies, the crossing of bullets and fisticuffs, the spilling of blood, and maybe some hurt feelings as well. But despite his need for unmitigated vengeance, the sight of familiar faces and spaces, on top of Wick's handywork may have forced him back into the vicious, on-going cycle of blood shed. But as the underlying theme of the movie dictates, "Everything has a price...", and be that as it may, the only question now remaining is if this is a price Wick himself is willing to pay?

Derek Kolstad wrote this largely beautiful script in crafting a gritty, bloody massacre of revenge for Reeves in one of his most physical roles to date following last year's 47 Ronin. Reeves is increasingly familiar with martial arts and physical acting, something that benefits him greatly as the title character who kills methodically and accurately, with the stealth and speed of a ghost and plenty of bullets and white-knuckle will power to go around. Of course, that credit goes o the amazing team over at 87 Eleven with Stahelski and Leitch wearing several hats between their vision as stunt directors as well as filmmakers. Further kudos go to that of Bernhardt who also shares history with the team as well as Reeves, having previously gone toe-to-toe in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), in addition to the principal action performances by Willem Dafoe who plays Wick's friend and fellow assassin, Marcus, and Adrienne Palicki who plays leading femme fatale Ms. Perkins.

Other key supporting roles include that of actress Bridget Reagan as Addy, and actors John Leguizamo as chop shop owner Aurelio, David Patrick Kelly as Charlie - the cleaner, Ian McShane as Winston, Lance Reddick as the assassins' hotel manager (yes, they have hotels for that shit) and 'The Keymaker' himself, actor Randall Duk Kim as the hotel doctor, all proving intergral in some capacity for the events that take place, on top of lending some good acting to the screen. In addition, Allen does a terrific job setting the tone and pacing as the sniveling and cowardice Iosef, turning out a notable performace with character you love to hate and can't kill fast enough. For the most part though, biggest scene stealers here goes to two people: First, to Moynahan as she plays the very heart and soul of Wick's transition between pain and healing while playing such a small role with most of it in flashback sequences, ending with her on her deathbed. And secondly, to Nyquist in nearing the second act, carrying the film's tension and overall "Boogeyman" narrative. This is good, especially if you're someone who generally watches action movies all the time, and know that a good foundation upon which to build a leading protagonist for the audience to root for and engage, among other variables, could mean the difference between a great action movie, and a plainly horrible one.

Some minor flaws do occur though, largely pertaining to a few of the up-close shots during the action, and the music playing over just a little bit the dialogue in a few scenes. I also feel that the end scene was just a little bit rushed and that it could have been just a little drawn out just a tad for a much more resonating finish. Moreover, as good an actor Reeves is, his intensity only comes out during the action, as well as only a few of the poignant moments that play out in the first half. That said, he plays greatly on his strengths despite looking emotionless at times, a feat that suited him much better at times on The Matrix set, but often made me wonder if he'll be plugging into the Matrix before knuckling up to his former Russian kin and setting fire to the rain again. But, I digress.

In the event that John Wick gets a sequel (should Stahelski and Leitch choose to move forward with one if they so please), I certainly hope this partnership continues, bringing more talented and seasoned actors to fray. As a noteworthy mention, this film was not a mainstream film backed with tens of millions of dollars of financing, but a low-budget production with high-quality and even higher-caliber team behind it, embodying everything you could love about the action genre...and yes, dogs. You're welcome.

In whole, John Wick is a neon-lit, energizing and solid action movie for the fans, with a great cast and crew. It takes all the basics, enhances them with some of the most ferocious gun-fu and hard-hitting fights, with Reeves in top form as one of the most formidable action stars and actors to date. Accordingly, I look forward to what he, Leitch and Stahelski have in store for the upcoming series, Rain, now in development.

With this in mind, I am also conflicted about the prospects for a second offering, with Reeves' character having already gone through so much that you really don't want to see him go through any more bloodshed. In that aspect, you kinda love the guy and just want him to be happy, darnit! But, who am I kidding? If these directors can find a way to make it work, hopefully we'll see Wick back in action, wringing necks and wreaking havoc on urban criminal evil in pure anti-heroic vigilante fashion!...

Might as well make him an Expendable... Just sayin.

See the movie and support it. And by this, I mean don't download and steal the thing. Or John Wick will find you and kill you, and leave Charlie and his boys saran-wrapping you and throwing you in the back of a truck. Word.


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