Review: John Wick avenges his dog and it’s awesome.
Title: John Wick
Director: David Leitch and Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad
Principal Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Defoe, Dean Winters, and Adrianne Palicki
The old saying is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ which is pretty fair but not entirely accurate. A cover is there to peak your interest so if you’re looking at a bad poster then at best you’re dealing with someone who approved terrible graphic design. When I saw the poster for John Wick I had one of those ‘don’t judge’ moments. It wasn’t until I read the summary that my eyes nearly rolled straight out of my skull. Did we really need another movie like this? And why does it seem like ‘wife’ has been replaced with ‘dog’? My first thought was ‘oh my god it’s Taken but with a dog’ which sounds so dumb I was expecting to come out of the screening less fifteen IQ points.
John Wick has one of the dumbest sounding stories ever but between strong action scenes and a surprising sense of humor it’s a fun example of exactly what it wants to be.
Our story follows ex-hitman John Wick (Reeves) as he copes with the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) from a terminal disease. After the funeral John receives a delivery in the form of a puppy named Daisy. Daisy is a post mortem gift from Helen to try and help John mourn the right way. A day later John is out for a ride when he meets Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the cocky son of a Russian gangster, who tries to buy John’s car. John refuses and later Iosef breaks into John’s house later, steals the car, and kills Daisy. Already shaken by the death of his wife John vows revenge on Ioself and his gangster father Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).
I promise that despite that stupid sounding premise John Wick is probably some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater since Guardians of the Galaxy. I don’t know what I was expecting when I went into John Wick but I certainly walked out much more impressed than I thought I would. For one this is a surprisingly funny movie. There is a scene toward the beginning that goes as follows (not be exact obviously):
Viggo: Did you strike my son?
Chop Shop Boss: Yes but he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.
Viggo: [long silence] I understand. [hangs up]
It was just a brilliantly funny delivery that set the tone for the rest of the movie.
John Wick seems to exist in some alternate reality where everyone knows about the legendary hitman and knows what to expect from that sort of thing. I witnessed the smartest movie cop of all time who just walked away from a massacre because that’s the sort of thing that happens with a hitman. It says a lot about the writing that they were able to come up with such a dire premise and make it funny. It also says a lot about the writing by Derek Kolstad that the dog premise works a lot better than it sounds like it should. Perhaps this is because I’m a dog owner but my heart broke when there is the yelp that comes from a dog being killed. Fortunately they don’t show it on screen. I can handle watching fifty million heads get holes blown in them but do not show me someone killing a dog. A good portion of the movie also takes place in a hotel that is basically neutral ground for hitmen. It’s one of the more original and interesting concepts I’ve seen in a movie. I’d honestly watch a sequel set in this universe simply because of the potential of that setting.
An action movie that is funny is good but we also need to have good action. John Wick more or less hits the ground running once Daisy is killed and doesn’t stop. Most of the fights are either hand to hand or with guns. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski both have strong backgrounds in stunt work and make their directorial debuts here. The background in stunt is probably what helped frame such cohesive action scenes. The key to a good action scene is a sense of space and knowing exactly where each character is in reference to one another at all times. Otherwise it all starts to blur together and you can’t remember what you watched five minutes later. Leitch and Stahelski both make sure that the fight scenes are easy to follow and well done.
Our actors all do a pretty good job as well. Reeves still proves to be the best man for these types of roles. He is the walking embodiment of the neutral mask which makes him remarkably easy to empathize with. The scene where Reeves finally gives a response to the ‘it’s just a dog’ argument that everyone is saying throughout the film is probably some of his better work overall. Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist as Viggo is probably best known for being the star of the Swedish versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series but he steps into the shoes of a gangster torn between trying to save his empire and save his son easily. Game of Thrones fans will recognize Alfie Allen as the son who kicks off the plot by being a spoiled brat. It was something that you don’t see as often in action movies; instead of the plot starting because of the desire to murder another person this time it boils down to a child stomping his foot and saying ‘I want that one!’. Willem Defoe also turns up to play a fellow assassin of John’s. Defoe seems more held back from his scenery chewing than usual but he’s still a fun presence to have. Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans will recognize Dean Winters in our henchmen role. Pro-tip: spend the entire movie pretending he is Detective Penbrook. It makes everything so much funnier.
Aside from the dead wife, whom we only see in flashbacks, Adrianne Palicki has our sole female role as Ms. Perkins, another assassin. She is pretty convincing in the obligatory guy vs girl fight but she isn’t anything else than a plot device. I’m always bummed to see a movie that doesn’t have much, or any in this case, of female characters when there easily could have been one. As far as tropes go I have to give John Wick some credit for fridging (the trope of killing a female character for the sole purpose of advancing the male protagonists plot) someone other than the wife. The fact that she dies of natural causes was a refreshing change.
Come the end of the screening I honestly couldn’t tell if the movie was completely self aware and that made how earnest it plays everything very charming or so self aware that it had somehow blown past irony. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and I couldn’t care less which one it was. At the end of the day I had a ton of fun at John Wick and that is something a lot of action movies seem to lack. There isn’t anything that says you can’t have an action movie without a little levity. In the real world we find humor in just about everything, why should we expect anything different from our media?
John Wick has one of the dumbest premises of the year but it manages to use that to be a surprisingly good movie that injects some of the fun and levity back into the action movie genre. if you’re looking for laughter mixed into your gun battles then John Wick is the movie for you.