'John Wick' Review: Fierce Action In A Unique And Curious Crime Underworld

Ninety percent of action movies are derivative. Carbon copies of better movies that came before them. They can be enjoyable, but are often forgettable. Then there's the other ten percent. Those movies are something special. They originate and innovate, and rise about the rest by being different and surprising. However, by definition, even the best of the best employ many of the same beats. Punching, kicking, shooting, and explosions are the building blocks of an action movie. The ninety percent use them in ways we've seen before. The rest mix them up in ways we don't expect. John Wick is among the ten percent.

In the first film by accomplished stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, Keanu Reeves stars as an unstoppable assassin hell-bent on revenge after thugs steal his car and kill his dog. We've seen the assassin revenge story a hundred times, but John Wick feels different because it's set in a unique, dirty, and lived-in world. Everyone has a reputation. Connections. They know each other. This is a place with a rich history simmering below the surface action of guns, choke holds and car crashes. What makes John Wick a standout action film is that it makes us curious.

John Wick really grabbed my attention was about 15 minutes in. After the basic set up, bad guy Iosef (Alfie Allen, aka Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones) brings Wick's stolen car to a chop shop run by Aureilo, played by John Leguizamo. Aureilo recognizes the car and asks where Iosef got it. In that moment, you know John Wick is different. Does Aureilo know who Wick is? How? Is he scared of Wick? Why? And what's he going to do about it? All of that starts to snowball; it pays off when the mob boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), also reveals he's aware of John Wick's reputation. Instantly were told there's much more to this story than meets the eye.

From there, screenwriter Derek Kolstad starts to build a history. We realize this version of New York City is like our New York City, but with some serious Mark Millar influence. There's a whole crime underground that runs on gold coins, secret oaths and dinner reservations. As Wick slowly goes through his standard revenge tale, there are interesting things at every turn.

That's the best part, but it's far from the only good thing in John Wick. Throughout the film, the action itself is simultaneously grounded and exciting. Many of the fights are done in long takes. Not Oldboy long, more like Oldboy lite. Action comes in bursts of 8-10 second shots where Reeves and henchmen whip through intricate fight choreography. It adds a real intensity to the film. Plus, the scenes never get too far-fetched. Bullets kill people quickly, and Wick is like a surgeon, obviously influenced by the gun-fu of John Woo.

The cinematography, by Jonathan Sela, enhances the impact. Every scene has a very specific, very saturated feel. Blues, reds and yellow pop off the screen, giving character to this seedy underworld. The music by Tyler Bates and Joel Richard also plays a huge role in the feel of the film. Massive rock riffs transition to pulsing house music and back again as Wick goes from situation to situation.

Where the film falters, however, is in that insistence to reality. For almost all of the film, Wick's insane ability feels like the only thing that stands out. The deaths, the crashes, everything is dealt with quickly and realistically – in an action movie style, of course. But that also means when characters make stupid decisions – like keeping characters they hate alive just to talk to them – we're taken out of the movie. You forgive it, because action movies have those convention and sometimes they're unavoidable, but it's a check in the negative column.

Even with a few gripes, John Wick is an inventive and fun action movie living a few notches below the movies that influenced it. It's not as accomplished as films like The Killer, Oldboy, Kick Ass, The Professional and The Matrix, but it's in the ballpark. That's a pretty impressive feat for a first time directorial team.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10