There’s a dark beauty twinkling from the muzzle flares of guns in John Wick, a tantalizing sense of the fantastical that entrances viewers in Keanu Reeves’ dance with Death in what can only be described as an action masterpiece. Brutal. Bloody. Colorful. It’s a return to form – a methodical, stylized movie filmed without the reliance on shaky cameras or out-of-focus violence. Each shot captures well-choreographed bouts of brawn, the camera lens soaking up the vibrant hues that color the criminal underworld John Wick stains in his quest for revenge. Each sequence orchestrates a visual array of destruction that excites the audience in an innocent, almost gleeful way, rendering us children gazing at a dazzling display of fireworks blazing across a red mist sky. One man’s vengeance is an audience’s poetry, and the ride is as stunning as it is pulse-pounding.
Our protagonist, John Wick, is a meticulous man teetering on the edge of insanity. He keeps an orderly house, everything in its place and spotless. Even after the death of his wife, John keeps her belongings tidy and neatly arranged, the way she would have wanted them. But the cracks around his façade are growing. The fuse of a bomb smolders underneath his quiet demeanor, and we catch glimpses in the mechanical, aloof way John goes about his morning routines. There’s no hope glimmering in the shades of blue and gray that introduce us to our leading man, not until a dog is left on his doorstep – a parting gift from his wife just before she passed. All it takes is a Russian brat, the self-centered son of a feared crime lord, bludgeoning John’s dog and that smoldering bomb explodes, propelling us down a merciless warpath teeming with mayhem and eloquent blood splatters.
Along the way, several Hollywood heavyweights step in for cameo roles, most notably Willem DaFoe. Even cult actors get their dues as Ian McShane, granted cult worship after his stint as Al Swearengen in HBO’s Deadwood, joins the cast in one of the more surprising cameos. Many of these surprise appearances, however, serve only to build up the god-like powers of former professional hit man John Wick. Before the action starts, the audience is shown scene after scene of criminal entrepreneurs carrying on about the superhuman abilities he possesses, nestled by fireplaces with bottles of scotch as they swap Chuck Norris-esque stories about this unstoppable deliverer of death, a monster they refer to as “The Boogeyman.”
Though Keanu Reeves does a fantastic job in the title role, speaking mostly through a vicious aura of silence and bloodletting, the real star of this film is the camera work. These days, most adrenaline-fueled thrill rides follow the Michael Bay rules of physical engagement – blurred visuals and jittering cameras supplemented by blaring bass. It’s rare to see an action film that sets the camera on a tripod in a corner, taking a step back to capture the full momentum of bodies pummeling each other into oblivion. In John Wick, the cinematography is intimate when it needs to be, but it’s not afraid to take those few paces backward, granting our eyes permission to catch the full fury of our protagonist’s calculated anger. And it’s refreshing.
Oddly enough, the style of filmmaking even reflects our character’s meticulous nature. It’s methodical and precise, the lens carefully dancing around fist and gun fights so well-orchestrated, we can only gawk in awe as the master works. John Wick isn’t just a man on a personal vendetta, he’s an acrobat, a titan, a god. His movements are graceful, like a ballerina of blood. If the pinnacle human art of Cirque du Soleil were transposed to cinema, John Wick would be it.
Lighting and color lend a great deal in creating this mystique. Though the movie begins in shades of blue and gray, as the violence ramps up, the palettes switch. Different settings take the form of different paintings, taking advantage of a wide plethora of color our actors can duke it out across. Reds, greens, purples, and neons, the lighting crew doesn’t hold back. John Wick is gritty, hard-boiled and pristine all at once, and it comes across as one of the most eloquent action films in years.
But it’s not all awe-inspiring beauty and serious gun play that fills this movie. The directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, know when to play it straight and when to let humor sneak in. They know to keep their characters intensely engaged in this world, making humorous wise-cracks that entertain us without trotting our players out to the audience for a wink at the camera or a nod. The sense of glee in John Wick is what audiences have yearned for over the years in their favorite action franchises, but it feels more sophisticated than movies like The Expendables, more thought-out. Part of this might be because of the world John Wick takes place in. The criminal underworld our protagonist plays in lies underneath the real world, but it takes on an element of whimsy and fantasy. This underworld is stylish and has its own rules, even going so far as trading in its own currency – gold coins designed specifically for mobsters, hit men, black market traders, and assassins.
The result is one of the greatest action flicks in years, a definitive masterpiece that will, hopefully, spawn a new franchise to balance out the onslaught of superhero films. There are many more tales to explore in this vast fantasy play land. Let’s hope Keanu Reeves and company manage to sell the hard “R” rating for another round of testosterone-filled gore.
Writer, Social Miscreant, Gamer, Beer lover, Author, Deputy Director/Managing Editor at Literary Orphans and occasionally Mr. Comedian to all the wrong people. Scott Waldyn leads a quiet existence until his brain flares up and paints colors over a black and white reality.