Fantastic Fest 2014 Review: ‘John Wick’

John Wick

Cinema’s next great badass is here. John Wick is totally fucking awesome, with a style and tone as impressive as its action. Keanu Reeves IS John Wick. I hope I’m not ripping off anyone’s lingo there. That’s what they want us to say when the movie is named after the main character, right? 

Wick is mourning his wife and finding a little comfort in the dog she left for him, when some Russian thugs admire his classic Mustang. When he refuses to sell his car to the Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) in a gas station, they come steal the car and kill his dog. Then they find out, oh wait, John Wick is actually the world’s greatest hit man who all the other hit men admire, so not even the Russian mob kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) can stop Wick from coming after his son. 

This could be a great moral for violent idiots. Even criminals have to do their research and check before they mess with a stranger. Violent idiots never learn though. If they were smart and measured, they wouldn’t be violent idiots. Wick’s crusade really is a retaliation against senseless violence. Of course we wish the violence and animal murder could be avoided entirely, but these guys are just A-holes determined to cause trouble. There was really nothing Wick could have done to prevent it short of selling his car, but Wick didn’t have time to do a background check on the gas station thugs. That’s on the thugs to vet the targets of their senseless violence. We can’t just sell our cars to every random gas station thug who wants to buy them. 

The violence is tastefully handled. We fall in love with the dog too but there’s no blatant cutesy manipulation. It’s the inherent charm of an animal and the performance Reeves gives with it. It’s also great how every other underworld character in the movie agrees with the audience that Viggo’s son shouldn’t have killed a dog, let alone John Wick’s. There’s a phone call between chop shop owner John Leguizamo and Nyqvist that’s going to be a classic. 

The professional respect for Wick gives the film class. We’ve seen villains tout a hero’s credentials (what film critic Vern calls the “just how badass is he” scene), but usually they have the bravado to challenge the hero. In John Wick, everyone from door men to hit men know and revere John Wick, and they happily defer to Wick should they encounter him. 

You might wonder, if a guy is this good, does that make it too easy for him? No, he’s just really efficient at it. Viggo still sends assassins after Wick and he tactically dispatches them. The action is a combination of MMA fighting and gunplay, which blend together rather smoothly, and look even classier with Wick wearing a suit. Action scenes are highlighted with striking imagery like a bloody body slammed up against a window, and gunshots blossoming in panes of glass. An example of the kind of personality in a John Wick fight is the time when he stuns a guy with a throat punch while he reloads to shoot him in the head. 

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch create a world that trusts us to follow along. We all should know how hit men and contract killing works, but even if this is your first action movie ever, the visual style guides you to fill in the blanks yourself. I certainly hope we see more action in the world of John Wick, and Stahelski/Leitch and Kolstad’s style applied to many more other films too.

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.