Historically, action films tend to fall into two different categories. The first one is a $200 million explode-a-ganza with whomever the current crop of action studs are (think Michael Bay). The second one is usually direct to video with B or C list actors. They are made on the cheap with fairly low expectations. Recently there has been an arrival of mid-level budgeted action pieces that can merge enough story into the action to raise the stakes with raising the budget. One example is “The Raid 2” which was an adrenaline rush of entertainment as well as some nice storytelling. The newest example of this is “John Wick”, a sort-of comeback project for Keanu Reeves.
The first 20 minutes takes a minimalist approach, simply showing quiet moments of John’s current life. He wakes up alone, eats alone and stares out the window alone. Peppered between these moments are flashbacks of his recently deceased wife in the hospital. One night a puppy is delivered to him with a letter, a last gift from his wife. She wanted her to be remembered by him through this animal that can give him some companionship and love. She didn’t want her last thoughts of him being alone. The next day John goes about his daily life when he comes across three brash young Russians who take a liking to his muscle car. After an awkward exchange John peacefully drives away and that night he is assaulted by the same three Russians. They dole out some harsh blows to John and a fatal one to his dog. They then make off with his car. John then goes on a revenge mission against everyone involved in the crime even as it resurrects his past as an unassailable hitman who was part of a vast underground network .
“John Wick” works nicely to get viewers invested in the John character. In the beginning we don’t know who John is, but as events unfold and layers are peeled back, we discover he is a violent force that scares almost everyone that knew him in his past life. It is conveyed that he left his past behind to have a nice quiet life with a women who he loved. He’s a man who has killed, and killed expertly, for a living but death has just only recently become truly personal to him. Only it was at the hands of nature and not some generic thug he needs to kill. Then the assault happens and he can now place a name and a face to his internal rage.
The movie also distances itself from other common action fare with its style. It’s fascinating that by just simply changing a few techniques here and there can make a film transcend becoming generic action fodder. Between editing, well-practiced choreography and some patience “John Wick” takes a relatively hackneyed premise and infuses it with a fresh tenacity. The action scenes play out in steady medium-wide camera shots, echewing the modern shaky cam style used to accelerate or mask the action. This puts the Gun-fu on full display where it is easy to see what is happening. It is called Gun-fu because the style is a merging of close quarters gunplay with martial arts. This isn’t the John Woo slow-mo style of “Face Off” but rather a fluid and realistic display of close combat. The finished product proves to it’s viewers that much time and effort was put into the fighting.
The style of “John Wick” also helps separate it as it holds a sophisticated sheen with classy architecture and unique set pieces. From the secret hitman hotel John stays at to the Russian dance club, all of it exudes class. There is a mix of old and new which creates a realistic yet mythic quality, like a graphic novel. An example of this is The Red Circle, a main set piece in the middle of the film. As the action moves from room to room you get a mix of a typical kitchen area, an underground bathhouse lines with old brick to a thumping modern dancefloor with swirling digital images and bright neon lights. It all flows organically with a touch or surrealness.
Keanu excels in this role, letting his natural quiet demeanor cohere nicely with his action star past. At 50, he looks as spry and nimble as anyone 20 years his younger. He is in incredible shape and worked hard for this role. Other cast members help add convincing depth to this world we are introduced to. Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Alfi Allen, Dean Winters, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane are all recognizable giving distinct qualities to their characters.
Lionsgate Films presentation of “John Wick” is a wonder to look at. The 1080P transfer shot in 2.40:1 by Arri Alexa cameras is clear and stable. Detail is strong throughout. The rather drab color palette used is a stylistic choice and although it does not make colors pop, it is more than perfectly matched for the story being told. That is not to say this disc is without color. In the club scene, the blueness of the water contrasts gloriously with the old brick all around it. Contrast also holds up nicely in these scenes. Most of this film takes place at night or in darker areas and the blacks remain inky and dense.
“John Wick” utilizes the new Dolby Atmos 7.1 technology. If you are not set up for Atmos, it will output by default as Dolby TrueHD. This is the type of soundtrack that will stress your system heavily. Between the gunfire, body blows and the heavy beats of the pop songs your subwoofer will be put into overdrive. All of it sounds realistic and the highs never faltering. Even with all this dialogue is never and issue and is well prioritized.
Audio Commentary with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – an averagely entertaining listen how some of the more technical aspects of the film were achieved.
Don’t F*#% with John Wick (17 minutes) – There is some good info here about the fight choreography and gun training. Also lots of praise for Keanu and his work ethic and how he trained for months to do most of his own stunts.
Calling in the Calvary (12 minutes) – A look how the project started by the producers.
Destiny as a Collective (6 minutes) – A quick look at the stunt company and the 2nd unit directors.
The Assassins Code (5 minutes) – a brief vignette about the hidden network shown in the movie as well as the style of the film.
The Red Circle (6 minutes) – A behind the scenes peak on how they did the club gunfight scene. It was nice to see they wanted to do their take on the classic club fight scene that always seems to appear in action movies.
N.Y.C. Noir (6 minutes) – A terrific and all too brief look at the locations used in the film. They creators wanted the city to be it’s own character. Also talked about are the challenges of finding a setpiece with space enough to film the needed scenes in
Last is a Theatrical Trailer
It’s refreshing to know that action can still be done in a unique and sophisticated manner. “John Wick” is violent, stylish, and intriguing the entire way through while introducing a character with depth and determination. One can only hope that this can lead other action films to adopt a similar approach where making an effort to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack is as essential as anything else done to make a film. The audio and video are excellent and the extras will keep you happy for a night. Highly Recommended.