Wryly, not smugly self-aware and with a self-mythologizing streak that is playful and maybe even convincing rather than bloated or self-important, “John Wick” is a strange bird. A seemingly disposable and generic early-winter actioner with a washed-up star from a bygone era of tepid Hollywood fame, the film, against all odds, winds up making an impression, revealing a hypnotic and technically accomplished vision by first-time filmmakers and former stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Their debut is concerned with the fearful reputation and preposterously competent, hyper-violent energies of revenge-seeking hero, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), whose wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), dies of illness. John reacts in the only way he could: immeasurable sadness and a little bit (we come to find, quite a lot) of anger. It isn’t until young Russian gangsters with links to his hitman past strip him of two of his remaining joys—a small dog gifted to him by his dead wife as a symbol of emotional refuge and comfort, and his ’69 ‘Stang, natch—that he takes a sledgehammer to his floor, collects his hidden, long-cast-off array of weaponry and heads to NYC to vanquish his taunting abusers, dangerously flirting with reentry into a life of crime.
Leitch and Stahelski trust the power of image. “John Wick[’s]” first scenes are almost totally wordless, but they act as potent visual expression of all we need to know in terms of characterization and narrative. As we watch a woman die and the man who clearly adores her (very internally) crumble, the directors present a series of measured, often straight-on shots that watch patiently as events unfold in front of us; a sorrowful hospital scene in the final moments of Helen’s life, with the camera setup placed directly facing the bed, framed at a distance by a window and two sides of a wall, both eludes heavy sentimentality and quietly devastates. There is a poetry to the filmmakers’ eye for detail, too—it’s in the way their camera lingers on the unreceived drip of the coffee machine in Wick’s home as he impatiently fills his cup before the brew has finished or the arrival of police cars illustrated not through blaring sirens but rather by visually fixing our attention on the silent, blinking red and blue lights that bore through the man’s tinted windows.
This is not to say “John Wick” is a somber or self-important affair, either—the directors have a self-conscious, exuberant stylishness that is intoxicating and uplifting in its pureness. This is due to the fact that even when dialogue—often delightfully silly, knowing, and absurdist—enters the picture, they relay their exposition in a smart and funny way. The scene where Wick’s true capacity for destruction comes to the fore is a delirious exchange (and one of the highlights of the film) between mob boss father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and meddlesome son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), where the filmmakers and actors invest what could have been a staid information-dump à la “Inception” and the work of Christopher Nolan with newly invigorated cinematic life, equal parts ridiculous, engaging and impressive.
The film has its setbacks. Although its visual interest and patience is to be appreciated, it doesn’t always substantiate its style. Other critics have lauded its action scenes for not relying on an accelerated speed of hundreds of cuts and flashy editing to ramp up the pulse of a given sequence, and its practiced long takes of bodies battling, contorting and squeezing triggers at one another are certainly well-composed. However, there isn’t necessarily a purpose or moral scrutiny to the violence on display like that found, for instance, in the two bookending James Bond films starring Daniel Craig, Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” and Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall,” and it ultimately uncovers Leitch and Stahelski’s lack of thematic underpinnings. A dearth of larger meaning is excusable, especially in such a relentless cavalcade of aesthetic enjoyment, but it does give “John Wick” a flimsy and minor temperament. In addition, the film wastes the great Willem Dafoe in a supporting role, whose initial appearance and first scene as an old friend and colleague of Reeves’ character promises a more clever usage of the talented actor than it eventually delivers, squandering him as something of a plot device.
Just when it seems the rampant violence will go completely unchecked, though, the film offers a wonky, late-in-the-game action sequence that partially amends its previous heinousness in regard to its treatment of death. The scene begins on a shot of a first-person shooter video game in the vein of “Call of Duty” or “Halo” that fills the frame, and as we get our bearings we watch, improbably but hilariously, as the characters playing the game are picked off, one by one, in the film’s actual reality by a sniper outside their apartment. It’s a sequence distinguished by a startling self-awareness and a spiky meta-commentary on the very portrayals of exploitative and all-too-gleeful violence to which the film itself sometimes falls prey.
It’s interesting to consider “John Wick” in the context of 2014’s other genre film offerings. Kenneth Branagh’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a tamer film by most barometers, at least initially boasts the moral hesitation and discombobulation of outright murder that “Wick” comes up short in with its shrewd, affecting portrayal of Chris Pine’s titular hero’s personal burden in executing his first kill. Otherwise, “Shadow Recruit” has only hints of the kind of groovy, unique visual approach that “John Wick” and the comparable “Lucy,” one of the better action pictures of the year, have in spades. The Luc Besson-directed “Lucy,” in fact, appears the most fitting comparison to Leitch and Stahelski’s work, an equally bonkers and visually dazzling tale that has just a touch more humanity and relevant societal evocativeness to its images. However, it’s in comparison to David Fincher’s disappointing “Gone Girl” that “John Wick” stands almost wholly triumphant, with the latter film’s pair of directors elevating their own potentially stale and unremarkable material with a sense of pulpy magnetism and flair of which Fincher was incapable, elevating their “John Wick” into the ranks of the year’s better genre efforts.