John Wick has the kind of premise you could fit on the back of a postage stamp with a thick marker pen: “Keanu Reeves seeks revenge for dead dog”. Depending on your attitude to Keanu Reeves, and your attitude to exacting vengeance for wronged canines, this may well be the greatest premise to ever grace your ears.
It’s a great premise because it doesn’t take much time to explain; the stakes of the film are established within minutes. It’s also great because there isn’t a single god-damn soul in the audience who won’t automatically empathise with small hurt puppy. With an action film like this you want that kind of expedience so you can get on with all the Crash Bang Wallop Wahey, and, believe me, this is the kind of Crash Bang Wallop Wahey worth seeing on the big screen.
In what is all but fan-fiction for the fight choreography of The Raid films, John Wick is a solid ninety minutes of impressive hand-to-hand stunts and gun-juggling buffoonery, executed in a way that is genuinely thrilling and frequently witty. It’s a real relief going to a film like this and seeing lengthy shots in the action sequences – the editing never cuts away on impact to hide the fact no one could be bothered to do real stunts. It’s action cinema that foreign directors have been doing for years, but Hollywood has always fallen short of.
All that action gubbins is undoubtedly the main draw, but the most surprising thing about John Wick is, well, everything else. My opening paragraph may have seemed disparaging of the simple premise, but there’s a lot to like about the dramatic elements at work. The opening five minutes are without dialogue, as a wordless relationship between Reeves’ titular hero and his wife falls apart when she collapses in a street. A lifelong disease has taken her, and she had prepared that when she died a puppy would be delivered to Wick’s house, so he would have a new life to take care of.
What is more extraordinary, as Keanu’s character delves back into a world of crime and murder where he once professionally resided, is that John Wick, after solidly establishing a dramatic bedrock for its own story, begins world-building. I use that term very specifically. John Wick begins establishing an intricate world of criminal gangs and calling cards and rituals. It all centres around what I choose to call “Crime Hotel”, what the film calls “The Continental”, a swish city hotel where the criminal underworld come to hang out in their off time.
All the normal film-criminal activities are available at Crime Hotel, with red-lit bars and swimming-pool dance clubs. Residents are allowed to stay as long as they follow the rules: no business of violence is permitted at Crime Hotel, under strict orders from The Management. Of course you also have to pay while you stay there, and naturally the criminal underclass of John Wick have their own private currency.
The criminals pay one another with gold pirate dubloons. Gold. Pirate. Dubloons. Not a single character references this out loud, no one double-takes at the pirate themed coinage, it’s so normal it’s not worth commenting upon.
How was this currency established? Why are the coins pirate themed? How do old criminals explain to new criminals that dollars are out of fashion? None of this is ever explained. Importantly, it’s intentionally left unexplained. There’s a fantastical world of crime that exists in this universe and you’re left looking at a single, tantalising, side of a complete invisible whole.
The film manages to deftly handle its own drama in an utterly convincing and frankly powerful way, but is also able to indulge in the most ridiculous of action sequences in a fantasy-crime world. It’s beautifully shot, edited like the best Jackie Chan movies, and is earnestly trying to do something unique.
Image Credit: Eliduke via Compfight.
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