Don’t Set Him Off

Chad Stahelski

Keanu Reeves
Michael Nyqvist
Alfie Allen

There are arguably two types of hitman flicks, ones depicting the killer as a skittish disconnected individual living in reclusive paranoia (Get Carter, The American) and those that portray a slick world of attractive people with infinite resources mercilessly executing their way across a disinterested city (Wanted, Hitman). Truthfully, both have their merits and when executed well can provide decent entertainment. John Wick sits largely in the latter but likes to think it’s the former and with a stronger script, could have easily been the best of both (Leon, In Bruges).

The narrative doesn’t waste a great deal of time with backstory, favouring short, sharp and succinct flashbacks to establish that the lead is a man named John Wick [Reeves], he was married and now his wife is dead. Her last act was to bequeath John a young beagle puppy for him to connect with and learn to love again. It’s stupid but it’s a fucking puppy so it works really well. Then a group of young Russian gangsters see John at a petrol station and envying his car, find his home, break in, beat him up, kill his dog and steal his car. From here we learn that John Wick isn’t just some average citizen but an ex-mob hitman and a murder prodigy. The Russian responsible, Iosef [Allen] is the son of Wick’s former employer, Viggo Tarasov [Nyqvist], and aware of the hell Wick will rain down without hope of being assuaged, Viggo puts out a contract on Wick’s life. Then John Wick murders.. like.. everyone.

The first thing audiences take away with them is the sheer wealth of visual expertise utilised from start to finish. With Chad Stahleski chalking up sixty plus roles as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator, treating his directorial debut as an opportunity to showcase what he knows best is hardly a surprise. The cinematography and direction are exceptional and move the film along at a steady pace. Furthermore, this movie also feels like an excuse to showcase the physical and skilled strengths of Keanu Reeves. Every fight sequence is choreographed wonderfully, Reeves’ movements are robotic and direct (in a good way) and the focus on physical/in-camera effects lends a real weight to the performance. Equally complimentary is the fitting overlying score of guitar riffs and bass pulses throughout, offered up by Tyler Bates and Joel J Richard. Aesthetically, John Wick hits a high benchmark; a very specific benchmark, granted, but one that the film wears as a badge of pride, treading that fine line between realism and outright absurdity. It’s here that the film’s Eastern influences (anime, gun fu, Hong Kong action) stand out and drive the finished article in a way that negates the necessity for bleached sunsets, CGI heavy slow motion, extreme rapid cut editing and excessive shaky cam – which are the backbone of other action franchises such as The Fast & The Furious and The Expendables.

And that’s really the limit of the positivity. The visuals make up a huge bulk of the film and their expert delivery postpones the comedown longer than most action films but rather than crashing through the wall, making audiences mutter, “Hang on, this is bullshit” Wick earns enough good faith that the disbelief is a slow burn reveal. All of which stems from the fact that the script is appalling – not just bad but step-by-step formulaic predictable crap. From the dialogue to the developments, everything is clichéd as hell constructed from every trope in the book. One could argue that inspiration has clearly been taken from revisionist Westerns but even then, these can be shot with a keen sense of evolutionary awareness, rather than simply regurgitating highlights from superior releases. Characters are wheeled in and out without any particular grace or finesse, the absurdity of the cataclysmic event which sparks this little revenge tale is nonsensical then justified then full circles back to ridiculou. Brow furrowing conveniences and cringe-worthy exchanges are littered throughout and dished out mercilessly. Thanks to the immersive nature of the visuals, some of these lines stick rather well and Reeves himself presents more emotional resonance than possibly anything he’s appeared in thus far. But most of the time, it’s just a bit flat. Curiously, another trick used to distract us from this fact is the wall-to-wall cameos. If audiences were subjected to dodgy dialogue from the same three actors over-and-over, you’d just end up with a Transformers sequel but by constantly introducing familiar faces from film and television, we’re strangely a little more forgiving.

As stated before, this film is very simply an aesthetically pleasing action film. The story is very tired and the interactions are often laughable but in its honest attempt to create something for a specific demographic, it succeeds rather well (much like a well-acted romantic comedy or a cheesy sports bio with half-decent source material). Is it strong enough to support an entire franchise or even a small series of sequels? Doubtful; not with this writing anyway, not even with the rinse-and-repeat method favoured by the Taken sequels. But as a vehicle for Keanu Reeves, it reminds us that for all his faults, he has a very specific set of skills that, when used properly, really benefit a release.

Release Date:
10th April 2015

The Scene To Look Out For:
A point I mention fairly often is the notion of a writer forcing an audience to believe something about a character, just because everyone keeps talking about it. In the wrong hands this is clumsy and stupid and anticlimactic but in Western’s especially, it can be utilised with great effect. Everyone banging on about how John Wick is this focused unstoppable killing machine gets pretty old pretty quickly but when you finally see him defend his house with lightning fast speed and systematic precision, it becomes apparent that he really is that good. And to ice the scene perfectly, a known policeman calls by and John answers, gun in hand, blood on his face, corpse visible, the cop simply smiles and leaves him to it.

Notable Characters:
Of the many (many) supporting appearances I was rather amused with Lance Reddick as the safe-house concierge, if only because his silliness was played straight and worked out rather well – that and Charon’s namesake is the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology.

Highlighted Quote:
“This life follows you, it clings to you. Infecting everyone that comes close to you. We are cursed, you and I”

In A Few Words:
“On the surface, disposable entertainment with a surprisingly well-helmed camera crew but in truth, a breath of fresh air for the action genre”

Total Score: