There was a point in my reading career where I was sick and tired of covering scripts about hitmen pulled in for "one last job." That hook has birthed some good movies in the past, but as it landed as one of my most frequently-read genres, I was weary of stories that trotted out the same old cliches. It got even worse after TAKEN scored and I began seeing an upswing in revenge stories that used hired killers the same way.
JOHN WICK shows that just because an idea is old, doesn't mean it's dead. Break it down to its barest essence and it sounds like one of those script's you'd pass by for fear of it being generic. The son of a Russian mobster and his buddies break into a man's home, beat him up, kill his dog and then steal his '89 Mustang. When the Russian punk takes the car to a chop shop for clean papers and a new VIN, the owner immediately recognizes the car and tells the arrogant shit to get out of his garage, even getting physical with him.
Naturally, the kid complains to his father, and the Russian capo Viggo Tarasov calls the chop shop owner demanding an explanation. He's told that his son "stole John Wick's car and killed his dog." Tarsov gives a pause that speaks volumes, then answers simply, "Oh."
That which isn't said tells us everything we need to know there. That's not the only exposition we get about John Wick, but it definitely is a lot more effective of a way to underline how sideways this situation as gone. We see the Russian mobster unnerved by the hell his son has called upon them before we get the full dossier on Wick. It not only builds anticipation for the reveal, but it also respects the audience's ability to read between the lines.
See, John Wick was a former enforcer for the mob. When he fell in love, he wanted out and performed "a task which should have been impossible" as part of a deal with Viggo. He spent five years with his wife until recently losing her to cancer. A few days after her death, John got a delivery - an adorable dog his wife picked out so he wouldn't be so lonely. Yeah, Viggo's son just killed the last gift John got from his wife - not really the way you want to cross a very dangerous and grieving man.
Thus sets off a series of action sequences where Viggo sends killers after John Wick, knowing that his son is probably as good as dead if he doesn't. John, of course, is more than up to the challenge. In an early eye-popping scene, he dispatches a dozen assassins sent to kill him, using a practiced and almost effortless lethality unmatched by few killers aside from Vincent from Collateral and Bryan Mills from Taken.
The brilliance of the film is the way that first-time director Chad Stahelski moderates the tempo. For every intense, non-stop action sequence where Keanu Reeves takes out a small army of goons, there's a moment where the film takes stock of the stakes and allows characters to react to the fallout of the action orgy. There's actual emotional engagement here, and it's another case of a director using Keanu's occasional blankness to good effect.
It's easy to give Reeves shit when he steps out of his comfort zone, but when he's playing to his strengths, his energy somehow draws the audience in. I'm sure some detractors have called the film out for "cheating" for pulling on easy emotional strings by having the bad guys kill a dog. One of the number one rules in Hollywood is that you never kill the dog because the audience will hate you. (This leads to jaw-droppingly stupid moments like the dog in Independence Day leaping out of the way of an inferno.) Once the bad guys commit an act sure to enrage the viewer, Reeves becomes an easy blank slate for the audience to project their own emotions onto. We've talked a little bit about this before when discussing some of Eisenstein's theories of using juxtapositions of shots to arouse emotion in the audience rather than an actor's performance. Whatever we are feeling as viewers, John Wick becomes an easy repository for that reaction. Reeves gives just enough to let our emotions do the rest.
Is it manipulative? Probably. Is emotional manipulation in and of itself terrible? Not always. I greatly prefer to be emotionally engaged with a story rather than passively watching it. One reason I think the film earns it's manipulation is that it doesn't dole out the backstory in a stale way. Wick's wife's illness and death is shown through a sad montage that lets the visuals do all the talking. We take in that story with our eyes and even when the dialogue of later scenes underlines what we saw, it's there only as confirmation, not wooden exposition.
There are a lot of ways to tell this story wrong, but writer Derek Kolstad and director Stahelsk know when to give the audience just enough. Two scenes after the previously discussed shootout are good examples of this. The first is when a cop pays a visit to Wick's place to investigate a "noise complaint." The conversation between the two men is loaded with enough subtext to make Harold Pinter proud. Soon after that, Wick dials a number to make "a dinner reservation for 12" which turns out to be a call to some "cleaners" who deal with the bodies and blood left in the wake of his massacre. It's all clever (and funny) execution of what could have just been two scenes there to explain away why the cops never investigated the shootout and how he's going to dispose of the bodies.
There's also a heavy dose of dry humor. Thanks to Pulp Fiction and Grosse Point Blank, we're used to gags about how blase and casual hired killers can be about their line of work. But usually we're dealing with dialogue that knows how clever it is. Here, the weariness in the dry delivery makes the gag fresh again. It's a subtle moderation of tone that I'm not even sure I can articulate, but it serves the film well.
Most of all, I got pulled into JOHN WICK because it creates a fully-realized world and shows us just enough that we want to immerse ourselves in it and explore much more than we are shown. This is especially true of the hotel where Wick takes refuge. It's set up as the sort of neutral ground that likely only exists in movies, where every room is made up of hired killers, the turndown service includes doctors to mend those pesky bullet and stab wounds and the one unbreakable rule is "no business" can be conducted there.
All of those elements are why I place this film above The Raid, as far as awesome action thrillers go. The Raid is relentless, full of fantastic fight choreography, but I never felt drawn into it emotionally the way I was here. I can appreciate The Raid's technical skill, but it threatened to be the fight sequence equivalent of having to smoke every cigarette in the carton. JOHN WICK is a lot more effective at world-building and character creation, both of which will make this one resonate a lot longer.