Sunday, November 2, 2014

JOHN WICK Bleeds Badassery


- Here's the short version: if you dig kick-ass, over-the-top action flicks, go see JOHN WICK, asap. The movie is a balls-to-the-wall shoot-'em-up that will please fans of The Raid and Dredd and other recent entries into the badass cannon. The film, starring an on-top-of-his-game Keanu Reeves, is directed by Reeves' former longtime stunt double, David Leitch. And Leitch, clearly, knows what he's doing when it comes to staging visceral, jaw-dropping action. He also brings a real sense of fun and comic book-esque world building to the table, making JOHN WICK a movie that is all too happy to embrace the absurdity inherent in its plot and premise.

Reeves stars as the titular antihero, a mythical assassin whose mere names causes professional killers to quiver in their boots. Wick's been out of the game for five years though - he left to settle down with a woman and live a quiet, normal life. His guns and other tools of the trade buried deep beneath the floor of his basement, Wick was happy and content. That is, until his wife died of a terminal illness. Her last gift to him was a dog, which arrived posthumously as a way to ease the pain of Wick's loss. Wick was dealing with it all decently, it seemed, until he runs afoul of would be crime-prince Iosef Tarasov (played with snotty brattiness by Alfie Allen, aka Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones). Iosef and his goons break into Wick's house and steal his car. In the ensuing melee, Wick's dog - the last vestige of his dearly departed wife - is killed. Iosef gets away, but he has unknowingly unleashed a beast. Even though Iosef is the son of Wick's old employer, and even though Wick has sworn he was out of the killing business ... well, you had better believe that that cache of guns buried beneath the house is going to get unearthed. And you had better believe that hell is a-coming for anyone who stands in Wick's way.

A couple of things make JOHN WICK stand out from the pack. One is the great cast of supporting characters who populate the stylized world of the film. The movie doesn't go into great detail in its efforts to build out its assassin's creed mythology, but it sort of hints at a lot of coolness and, in broad strokes, imagines this unique world where hired killers have their own icons, rules, safe-zones, currency, and codes of conduct. And in this world, alongside Keanu Reeve's Wick, you'll find the likes of Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynihan, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, the aforementioned Alfie Allen, and fellow Game of Thrones actor Michael Nyqvist, playing his father and, ultimately, the film's Big Bad. Most if not all of these actors are in top form, with the main complaint (which is never a terrible one) simply being that you want more of them. Willem Dafoe - I could have watched a whole movie about his off-kilter sniper. Ian McShane - in top badass form, I would have loved to see even more of his character. Lance Reddick, who already kicked ass this Fall in The Guest, well ... I was just waiting for his character to go full badass, but alas, it never happened. When super badass actors are playing even the non-ass-kicking characters in an action film, you know your cast is loaded. As for Reeves himself, I'm not going to say he's back, because I've enjoyed him in other recent films where I think he got an unfair shake from critics (47 Ronin, anyone?). But I will say that the John Wick character - stoic, rage-filled, a man of few-words, is one that's perfectly-tailored to Reeves. Especially to an older, more grizzled Reeves, now possessed of a gravitas that his younger, surfer-dude self was not. 

The other thing that stands out about John Wick is just how crazy the action is. I mean, look, The Raid, in my view, raised the bar for close-quarters action films, to a level that only The Raid 2 has since reached. JOHN WICK is no The Raid. But it is potentially the American film that, so far, comes closest to the dizzying heights of the Raid. The action comes fast and furious, and there's a balletic brutality to the combat that is thrilling to watch. A couple of sequences - including one particular stunner that takes place in a pulsating nightclub - are stone-cold classics. My one complaint is that there's a pretty big gap between the movie's two or three best action sequences and everything else. A lot of the movie falls short of its most memorable moments.

The third cool thing about the film is, like I said, it has no reservations about being totally over-the-top, and having a sense of self-aware humor about it. This makes for some great grindhouse-esque moments of glorious absurdity. That said, I sort of wish the movie was just a little bit sharper with its humor. Some opportunities for great one-liners seem to be missed, and the movie sometimes seems to forget the humor and lay the self-seriousness on just a little too thick. I would have liked a little more tonal consistency, and for the script to have just a little more zing.

At the end of the day, JOHN WICK earns its badass bonafides, and proves to be a much-better-than-average action flick that features some true "holy $%&#" moments. For action fans, it's a must-see. But I hesitate to hype it up as an instant-classic, as to me the only-okay script and quality-variance in the action keep it from reaching Raid-levels of OMG awesome. But yeah, Keanu owns the role, and I wouldn't mind seeing Wick return for a few more rounds.

My Grade: B+

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