There is no formula more conducive to kickass movie-making than the revenge story. This time…it’s personal. They thought they killed him…they thought wrong. It’s time for payback. And so on. For the most part, these movies feature threadbare plots and acting to provide the barest pretense for another action sequence. We don’t really care whose partner got killed or who got double crossed. We just want to see the avenger suit up, venture out, and drop some bodies. Unless you add a really novel twist on the formula, however, the revenge flick is a rote exercise in violence that rarely leaves much of a lasting impression. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. And one of the most noteworthy, and recent, of these exceptions is the uncommonly awesome, neo-noir, action revenge movie, John Wick.
John Wick was once the Russian mafia’s most feared assassin until, against all odds, he managed to retire and marry the woman he loved. His assassin days were behind him…until his wife dies of a terminal illness, and John is sent emotionally adrift. However, his wife arranges for a beagle puppy to be delivered to the house shortly after her funeral. The doggo is his wife’s posthumous parting gift to her beloved John; it will give him something to love while he processes his grief. And for a while it works…until one fateful day, John runs afoul of a few thugs from that same Russian mafia he once worked for. They don’t know who Wick is, so when they invade his house, steal his car and kill his dog, they have no earthly clue what kind of unholy bloodbath they have just called down upon themselves. Wick wakes up, buries the dog, digs up a crate of weaponry, and goes back to work. And for the next hour or so, he kills his way across New York City in what has to be one of the most outstanding ballets of stylized violence brought to film in recent years. When it is all over, dozens of bodies litter the ground, a dozen cars have been wrecked, and thousands of bullets have been fired all to prove the #1 rule of action film-making: You do not mess with another man’s dog.
For what it is, John Wick is way better than it really has any right to be. We see Wick get by on skill and savvy but he still must contend with ammo shortages, serious wounds, and guys who fight better than he does—which all keeps the action sequences fresh and thrilling. It doesn’t hurt that the directors infused things with a blend of inspiration taken from martial arts, anime, Westerns and other sources to create a kind of flow you simply don’t see in other action movies. And all the while, what we see, we see through a level of cinematography usually reserved for a much lower-octane form of entertainment.
Something else that helps to set this movie apart is the Continental Hotel, a posh place that serves the criminal underworld exclusively, and serves as neutral ground; in a world of killers and crime lords, this is a place where all can check in and relax without having to look over their shoulders. Everyone pays in these weird gold coins that have no apparent source or origin; it’s just like there is this criminal world that exists just out of sight, and Wick’s war upon those who wronged him occurs pretty much within that and nowhere else. It explains why innocent bystanders, for the most part, are out of harm’s way and why the police are nowhere to be seen as entire industrial parks are shot up by the city’s deadliest assassin looking for the guy who killed his dog. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it, but it’s carried off so well that it dwells comfortably within our suspension of disbelief. Instead of wondering who the heck is minting those coins, you focus on how freaking cool the Continental is, as are the people who run it. That’s high-level misdirection right there. That is simply terrific storytelling.
The moment of truth, however comes at the point when John Wick has largely dismantled the criminal empire of his old boss, Viggo, as he searches for Viggo’s son Iosef, the fella who killed John’s dog. Viggo knows how bad it is to be on John’s hit list, and when he finds himself staring down the barrel of John’s gun, he just gives up Iosef’s location. Let’s dwell on that for a second: the city’s most powerful crime lord knows it is so pointless to get in John’s way at this point that he hands over his son’s life to a man he knows will kill him. This is such an awesome moment that it almost gets passed over. But it is a terrific comment on an anti-hero who doesn’t walk around trading on his rep. He just lives it, and lets other people decide how to react. Most of them give him polite deference or an occasional favor out of acknowledgement of how wrong it is to kill not just any guy’s dog, but this guy’s dog. And not just any dog, but the dog his dead wife gave him. How stupid do you have to be to kill John Wick’s dead wife’s dog, man? Pretty stupid, it turns out, which is why Viggo can’t defend his own blood. We’re in a world with a killer so fearsome that he can even make you forget your duty as a father. And you’d never know it by looking at him. That is true menace. And the longer the movie runs, the more we realize how legitimately earned that reputation is. John Wick really is as good as people say he is. And his movie, it turns out, really is as good as its makers wanted it to be.