John Wick (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Contrary to glowing reviews, “John Wick” is a sub-standard action-thriller with a few elements that could have elevated it if the screenplay by Derek Kolstad had elaborated upon them. Instead, the picture is largely composed of shoot-‘em-up razzle-dazzle—perfect, I suppose, for audiences who crave nothing more than empty calories. However, for those of us hoping to be entertained and engrossed, there is nothing to see here.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is an assassin who left his occupation five years ago to get married and live a life that will not require him to look over his shoulder constantly. But upon the death of Helen (Bridget Moynahan) due to an illness, John is thrown back into the business of killing after the dog that his spouse left him is killed by Iosef (Alfie Allen), son of the head of a Russian syndicate (Michael Nyqvist).
For a story involving a group of assassins who know each other, some can even be considered to be friends, the picture commands neither heft nor substance. There is a hint of a relationship between John and a sniper named Marcus (Willem Dafoe), the latter a sort of father figure for the former. At one point, we are supposed to question Marcus’ loyalty to John but the material abandons this potential route of intrigue so quickly that we wonder why such an avenue is introduced at all. Dafoe is a consummate performer and it is a missed opportunity that the script does not allow him to do much.
The action is one-note in that it is about twenty-percent hand-to-hand combat and the rest involves shootouts. Such an approach might have worked if there had been a little more diversity in its execution. However, the majority of the action happens at night, in the dark, and indoors. Although the locale changes, it is always dark. Thus, we do not get to truly appreciate the fight scenes in terms of who is being hit, how hard, or if there is any strategy involved into the attack or kills.
In addition, the action scenes are almost always submerged in a hard rock soundtrack, one has to wonder if the filmmakers had no confidence at all in the purity of the images. Eventually, I caught myself feeling passive when there is commotion on screen—which is most problematic because action movies are supposed to be thrilling or cathartic, not sedative.
We learn very little about the lead character. Reeves is not exactly the most versatile actor but he does possess effortless charm. Instead of using that charm, it appears as though the film wishes to make him as cold or closed down as possible. Reeves is either quiet or muttering his lines, occasionally growling when John is supposed to be enraged. As a result, what we see and feel on screen is nothing more than average and expected. The material does not inspire us to want to know more about the grieving man.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, “John Wick” is yet another forgettable and brainless action movie that fails to capitalize on its more creative elements. For instance, the assassins have a code they agree to honor in a hotel called The Continental. By following this code, the assassins create a semblance of professionalism and being civilized. By failing to lure us into its world completely, the film begins to run out of steam by the first act. By the end of its short running time, we feel not exhilaration but relief that the depressing experience is finally over.