It’s downright audacious anymore for an increasingly spineless Hollywood studio system to throw in behind a pointedly hard R-rated revenge flick that isn’t based on a money-printing franchise or established comic book/graphic novel IP. An absurdly populist, crowd-pleasing movie like John Wick shouldn’t feel like a gamble, but here we are at the end of 2014, when such unguaranteed fare is fast becoming an endangered animal.
The film opens as the eponymous John Wick (Keanu Reeves, perfectly suited to the laconic retired killer role) stumbles out of a car crash with a sucking abdomen wound. Stuntmen-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski get the hero’s motivation out of the way quickly: Wick’s recently deceased wife (Moynahan, seen only as an iPhone video memento) leaves him the posthumous gift of a puppy to make sure he has some companionship—and, presumably, to give him something to do besides tear around in his gorgeous ’69 Charger. Bratty, entitled mobster heir Ioesef (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, basically doing a Russian Theon Greyjoy) doesn’t appreciate it when Wick rebuffs his car-buying proposition. He repays the perceived slight with a violent home invasion, resulting in a classic car stolen and a puppy dead. (Pet lovers beware, that little beagle is adorable.)
What follows is a deftly paced reveal of Wick’s world as an ex-hit man by means of his bloody “They killed my dog” rampage, as gorgeously shot as it is wall-to-wall with goons shot full of holes. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela captures the action within the dark, claustrophobic sets in exquisite fashion—there’s always something just out of frame to tantalize. But as otherwise entertaining and crisply choreographed as that rampage is, it’s the subtler, cool-as-hell details of the killer-for-hire underworld that make for the fun. In John Wick’s vision of New York, there’s a hip, underground club-like scene exclusively for contract killers, tons of winking menace behind every loaded exchange. The implied backstories between these professionals is intriguing; Deadwood’s Ian McShane could not have been better cast as an assassin guild leader you should never, ever fuck with. Ditto for Fringe’s Lance Reddick as the smiling “Hotel Manager,” and Willem Dafoe as Wick’s old colleague with pliable loyalties. Even John Leguizamo (whom Allen’s character calls “Old Man”—that make anyone else feel their years?) as a mob-front garage owner has his codes, rules and secrets.
The straightforward story is so minimal, of course, it merely serves as a functional hook upon which to hang the setting and characters; Derek Kolstad’s screenplay calls but for a spare few monologues and minimal verbal exposition, leaving the capable acting and lens the space to deploy the bon mots. At a fleet and nimble 96 minutes, the movie hits its marks with admirable efficiency. And within that brief window, the blood-slicked, vividly drawn film universe John Wick illustrates is such a generous slice of pulp that, even if not original, per se, it exudes a confidence rarely seen these days, surefire franchises be damned.
Directors: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski?
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: Oct. 24, 2014
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.