Film - John Wick

John Wick

Ren Zelen gets in on the action as she remembers John Wick...

Keanu might not be the most dynamic actor around, but he certainly is a lovely mover. Utilizing his endearing pigeon-toed stride, there isn’t a movie where we don’t see him get physical. He is always required to run, more often than not he has to leap off buildings or out of speeding vehicles, fight, kick, tote around enormous swords or guns or ride a surfboard (not so well) and somehow he usually he ends up very, very wet. Whether leaping, kicking, sopping wet or staggering around covered in blood, he makes it all look rather graceful. That gruelling Matrix training with Yuen Wo-ping only served to enhance his already considerable choreographic finesse.

That finesse is put to good use in John Wick – the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski – a veteran stunt coordinator and Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix. This long and trusting relationship pays off in spades here. The movie’s storyline however, is standard-issue revenge thriller. Any plot which might get in the way of the action is dispensed with early on, during a montage in which we witness John Wick’s beloved wife dying after a long illness. He’s distraught but comforted by his wife’s final gift, a puppy named Daisy.

Unfortunately, John Wick’s other love, his classic, black 1969 Mustang Boss, has attracted the attention of Iosef Tarasov, the son of a Russian mafia kingpin. This young hothead breaks into Wick’s house with his henchmen – beats the hell out of Wick, steals the Mustang and kills his dog Daisy. What the spoiled twit doesn’t know is, that he’s just attacked a legendary hitman who retired from the profession five years earlier when he fell in love and married. His crime-lord dad knows it though, and he knows that, oh boy, you don’t just steal that man’s car and kill his dog and get away with it, oh dear me no.

Thus the conventional plot device of ‘unwisely pissing off a hitman’ is what draws John Wick back into the main business of kicking (killing to be more precise) ass. Decked out in a natty, black, three-piece suit and a scruffy beard, Wick is a man of few words. I’d be surprised if he speaks more than a dozen lines, but when he does, you can be darn sure he means what he says.

Stahelski creates an unusual, autonomous world for John Wick’s other life, one that emphasizes style and exclusivity and includes a high-end hotel (with Ian McShane as proprietor) that has strict rules, a 24-hour medical service and caters exclusively to killers for hire. Wick and his fellow hitmen (and women) including Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki, all behave like a Medieval guild with stringent codes of behaviour, and if the code is broken they are punished by a definitive expulsion. (Killers haven’t been this much fun since Cusack’s Grosse Pointe Blank, albeit with much more dialogue).

John Wick

Knowing that he doesn’t need camera jiggery-pokery to make Keanu look better than he actually is, Stahelski wisely takes an old-school approach to the film’s action set pieces. Instead of the commonly-used, fast-cutting, shaky-cam mash-ups, Stahelski employs long, elaborately choreographed takes in which every move is visible and well delineated. Everyone knows I’m not a violent girl by nature, but watching Keanu scrap becomes an aesthetic pleasure, displayed in clear focus and crisp movements, even in crowded settings.

John Wick has no shortage of bravado and energy in its use of close-quarter combat and multitude of fire arms, for those into that kind of thing. For me, Keanu’s martial arts training brings something almost balletic to the action.

Each fight is choreographed meticulously, which is paramount in making Wick believable as a lethal force*. Derek Kolstad’s screenplay emphasises this by being stripped of any unnecessary scenes or dialogue.

I seem to have viewed a lot of vengeance movies recently – for Denzel, Liam, Sylvester, Gerard and Bruce, they are career staples. These fantasy revenge and retribution movies seem to become particularly popular and prolific when a nation, or people in general, feel especially vulnerable. As a social phenomenon it’s a dead giveaway that we are feeling rather powerless ourselves. We look to fictional reformed assassins with near superhuman powers to single-handedly clear the Eastern Seaboard of the Russian Mafia, or save the White House from North Korean terrorists or merely wreak bloody vengeance on gangsters for stealing their car and killing their dog – ‘that dude will teach ‘em some manners’! Well, sorry folks, it ain’t gonna happen. (Again the lone woman in the cinema, I would have settled for Keanu sorting out the mook sitting behind me who insisted on regularly kicking the back of my chair, apparently immune to my most virulent ‘Paddington stare’).

I have an inexplicable soft spot for Keanu and it seems Hollywood does too. Despite his inability to emote much in the way of deep emotion he’s amassed an impressive résumé. (I’ve never really understood how that happened, have you? It’s like we were hypnotized by Derren Brown). Keanu is never going to win an Oscar. He tries bless him, but he still shines best in roles where he’s the enigmatic man of few words. Mind you, others have built a respectable acting career doing much the same with less strenuous physicality (Yes, I’m looking at you Clint).

I even grudgingly enjoyed Reeve’s Constantine against my better judgement– it wasn’t my Hellblazer Constantine, but Keanu managed jaded, cynical, world- weary, wise-cracking black humour well enough to make me wish he got the chance to give us more of that dead-pan comedic delivery.

John Wick could have easily been another disposable Hollywood vengeance-wish-fulfilment-fantasy, but you get the sense that the filmmakers and the leading man were aiming for something a little more artful, stylish, smart, and idiosyncratic. After Bond, Hunt and Bourne, I for one, wouldn’t be disappointed to see a John Wick sequel.

*Admittedly, when Wick gets to fight with the ultimate baddie in the driving rain, I missed his cassock and Hugo Weaving tearing down from the black sky like an exocet missile, but hey…

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2015 All rights reserved.

Image - Warner Bros.

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