October 29, 2014

John Wick

There are so many elegant little touches in John Wick that it would be tempting to dismiss them as out of place in an intensely violent revenge picture. There’s a scene in a cemetery early in the film, and the tombstones in the foreground are thrown into relief by the skyscrapers of New York in the background, so that the buildings really just look like taller tombstones. Yes, one can read a lot of symbolism into this shot, but it’s better, perhaps, to think of it as simply an artful shot, conceived by a director (Chad Stahelski) and a cinematographer (Jonathan Sela) who love movies and love what they can suggest visually in movies. This isn’t an attempt to be showy or pompous, it’s just exuberant filmmaking.

It’s precisely that exuberant filmmaking that our popular genres have been missing for so long. The skillful ways that Stahelski elevates the visual elements of John Wick set it apart from the rest of its ilk, and that’s a wonderful, refreshing surprise. It’s the only action movie in recent memory that actually cares about being a movie. (Except Skyfall. And maybe a few others.) The violence is so exciting, so well-staged and suspenseful, that you might forget just how brutal it would be in real life. (I did feel overwhelmed at times, but I’m not an aficionado of this genre per se.) Viewers who have been made to sit through so much garden variety action crap may find their appetites wetted for a renewed standard of quality, one that they had forgotten after years of being mediocritied to death. (No, that’s not a real word.)

This is a perversely beautiful movie, which is just the right kind of beautiful for a “mindless” action thriller. Even the performance of Keanu Reeves—who is nothing if not a spotty actor—adds to the film’s panache. He doesn’t have a lot of speaking lines, and Stahelski uses this to his advantage, pointing up Reeves’s look: He’s a lean, fit, poised killing machine, and if anyone imagined that at fifty Reeves was less capable of ass-kicking, John Wick offers ample proof to the contrary. Actually, Keanu Reeves is one of those actors whose badness somehow translates into goodness.

When Reeves shouted “I am an FBI agent!” in Point Break, I laughed hysterically. Then I recorded the sound clip with my phone and made it one of my ring tones. I don’t suppose it will sound sincere, but I like Reeves’ acting as it is. He never seems insincere, but he often struggles to sound believable as an actor. But you admire him for trying, and it’s hard not to be impressed with his physical presence on the screen. Even now he can grab an audience in a way that seemingly more magnetic stars like Johnny Depp or Leonardo DiCaprio cannot. He’s more believable as an everyman than Depp, and more in touch with his physicality than DiCaprio.

The first half of John Wick has a murky atmosphere that suits the mood of the title character, who’s grieving the death of his wife and completely alone. But then something happens that ignites Wick’s sense of vengeance, and he goes after a group of Russian mobsters with the full force of his hatred and his considerable skills as a professional killer, one whose services the mob frequented before he retired. In one scene, a group of masked men working for the Russian mobsters raids Wick’s house, but he takes them on with enjoyable ease and an impressive degree of cold skill and smarts.

We’re usually treated to fight scenes that are virtually incomprehensible because of the rapid camera movement and editing. John Wick shows off its star’s abilities and its filmmakers’ too—letting us see fighting that is masterfully staged and actually, you know, visible. The suspense from those scenes is organic, never forced by flashy editing. In a later sequence—a big showdown at a nightclub all glossed out in neon reds, greens and pinks, Stahelski is at the peak of his powers: the violence hits an all-time high in its indefensibleness, and the visual beauty—all the colors and the exciting ways that the actors inhabit their bodies and the choreography of their brawling—combine into a riveting display of sheer vainglorious mayhem. After a while you begin to feel exhausted by the intensity of it, but never numb, and as the film is mercilessly short at 98 minutes, you’re not there long enough to resent the movie for its carnage. And the movie is still very tame if you compare it to something like a Tarantino film. It’s violent but not excessively gory. John Wick is intense, funny, well-mounted kung fu, only with machine guns.

With Michael Nyqvist Alfie Allen, Willem Defoe, Dean Winters (hilarious as the Russian mobster’s non-fighting right-hand-man), Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane. Written by Derek Kolstad.

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