The current state of the action genre is nebulous to say the least. On the one hand we have the straightforward Dredd, and the self-indulgent Expendables, supplemented by the annual Liam Neeson revenge/mystery. All are serviceable, becoming the First Blood/Commando of this generation; new archetypes for what we will know as the go-to action template for years to come. But this only compounds the problem of monotony in film where everything starts to look the same. This brings us to John Wick, a movie you have seen over and over again.
The plot is the definition of simple:
A former hitman loses his wife and tries to move on by taking care of a beagle puppy she left behind. Said beagle becomes the embodiment of her memory and his reason for going on. But after earning the ire of Iosef, the son of a Russian Godfather, played by Alfie Allen, the puppy is murdered in the ensuing burglary of his home. This sets Wick off (no pun intended) on a tirade of bloody revenge.
Ultimately the plot doesn’t matter in regards to the rest of the film. For those who watch movies, this kind of story is as common as white on rice. There is not much you can do in a narrative that has been done so many times I could fill the entirety of this paper listing off titles. But where Wick conforms, it makes up for it in action and tone.
Combining the close-quarters of a brawl with the put-down power of a pistol, the fight scenes bring a new take to shoot-outs. Most, if not all of the kills with guns are point-blank with Wick dispatching his foes close enough to feel their final breath. It puts a brutal spin on an elementary fact of the action genre, something not achieved since Raid: Redemption. If there is any reason to see this film, it is the gunplay.
What Wick also does well is where it falls short. After the beginning it becomes apparent the film does not take itself seriously. The actors behave likewise, making an effort to ham-it-up for the sake of dry, yet decent humor. The only downside is there wasn’t enough ham. Michael Nyqvist, the best of the performances, was drunk and high as the Godfather Viggo, playing a charismatic caricature of a gangster, having the most fun with the material. It’s a shame Keanu Reeves did not enjoy himself as much, but his typical, blunt acting works to film’s advantage.
The world of Wick is so comically dumb it’s brilliant. Being a criminal means you belong to a cultish guild, where everything and everyone is paid off in gold tokens, the police leave you alone, there are cleanup crews for crime scenes, and there is a hotel/neutral zone exclusive to gangsters and killers alike.
The ridiculousness of these ideas, juxtaposed with Wick’s utter seriousness, enhances the self-deprecation while making it serious. Simply put, John Wick has been affected by his years as a hitman, whereas those of the guild go through the motions of criminality as if they were born into it. He is the only one aware of what he has done and the people he kills do not know, nor care they are evil. For him, murder is an awful thing, but he has a noble, sympathetic reason behind it.
Another film that does this the best is Punisher: Warzone, a love-letter to the fans. The villains are walking jokes while Frank Castle is cold and humorless. Castle takes no enjoyment in his actions, refraining from one-liners, and overtly elaborate kills, favoring simple and efficient methods. To quote comic book writer Garth Ennis, “Frank Castle makes the world sane,” in the same vein as John Wick.
Bottom line, the film needed more ridiculous, but it is nonetheless enjoyable with unique gunfights, and simple camera work that will make you wish shaky-cam was banned. However, if you find yourself wanting for something sweeter, I highly recommend Punisher: Warzone for how well it handles the same themes.