The wife of a man named John Wick has succumbed to a terminal illness. Just before she died, she had given John a gift to help him with the grieving process: a beagle puppy named Daisy. Over the next few days, he bonds with the puppy, driving her around in his vintage 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1. Trouble brews when at a gas station, a trio of hoodlums led by a young Russian gangster named Iosef Tarasov insists on buying his car. John assures him the car is not for sale, but Iosef refuses to take “no” for an answer. He makes his frustrations known when he and his cohorts follow John to his house, knock him unconscious, kill Daisy, and steal his car.
Iosef is the son of Viggo Tarasov, who is the head of the Russian crime syndicate in New York City. Being in his position of power, he is the type used to getting his way. What happens next effectively causes his free ride to crash and burn. He takes the car to a chop shop by a man named Aurelio to have the VIN changed. Rather than comply, Aurelio punches Iosef and unceremoniously kicks him out of the shop. Viggo naturally investigates the matter, but drops the subject upon learning exactly from whom Iosef stole the car. The crime boss then takes cues from Aurelio by striking his son, berating him for his terminally foolish action.
It’s clear that Iosef has used his father’s reputation to get whatever he wants. With that attitude, it was only a matter of time before he ended up biting off more than he could chew, and by angering John Wick, he has awakened a sleeping giant. John Wick was an assassin formerly in Viggo’s employ. His nickname, Baba Yaga, alludes to an old witch in Russian folklore who eats children. This would imply he was a boogeyman – the muscle you hire to set unruly clients straight. However, this isn’t quite the case. John Wick was the man you would send if you wanted the boogeyman dead. Indeed, when John wanted to retire, Viggo gave him “an impossible task”. He completed it without any trouble at all and helped establish the Tarasov syndicate as a result. As this is going on, John pulls out a case containing all of the weapons from his hitman days and is ready to exact his revenge. Viggo tries to talk John out of killing Iosef, but his former assassin refuses. In response, Viggo sends a twelve-man team to John’s house. It is a true testament to John’s skill that not only is he able to effortlessly kill all twelve of the gunmen, but Viggo is completely unsurprised.
What I particularly like about scriptwriter Derek Kolstad’s style is that he firmly grasps the idea of showing rather than telling. There are plenty of interesting story beats implied through select character interactions, yet it never feels as though you’re ever left in the dark. This is partially because John Wick pays homage to many classic films. One of them is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï – one of the most notable works spawned from the French New Wave scene. It was a movement that prided itself in both minimalism and showmanship among other things. This film manages to channel much of that energy in how it presents its world. One cannot exactly get into a gunfight against twelve hitman without alerting the neighbors. When a policeman shows up, he knows full well who John is and doesn’t pursue the issue any further despite seeing a corpse in the house. Without context, you would get the impression John was throwing a wild party and the policeman asked him to turn down the noise. For good measure, John is able to have all of the bodies removed. Even the film has no choice but to acknowledge his status as a living maelstrom by being named after him.
One of most intriguing aspects of this universe is the Continental Hotel. It is an establishment that caters to the criminal underworld. They provide ammunition and various medical services for their clientele with no questions asked. They also pride themselves in their code of conduct, the most notable rule of which is that no business may occur on the premises. In an interesting bit of world building, this secret society even has its own economy based on special gold coins – one is stated be worth thousands of dollars. Upon each coin are two Latin axioms: ex unitae vires and ens causa sui, which translate to “Unity is strength” and “Existing Because of Oneself” respectively. These little details go a long way in making this society believable.
After John deals with the first wave, Viggo places a two-million dollar bounty on his head. Ms. Perkins, a former acquaintance of John’s, attempts to assassinate him as he is recovering from his injuries in the Continental. She is particularly enticed when Viggo promises to double the bounty if she kills him in the Continental. John is able to subdue Perkins and forces her to reveal the location of Viggo’s front. After placing fellow assassin Harry in charge of guarding her as the powers that be decide her punishment, she frees herself and kills her captor. Her victory turns out to be short-lived, however. When Viggo tries to have her ambush John, Perkins is called to a meeting with the Continental’s owner, Winston. Unfortunately for her, she realizes too late the price for violating their code of conduct when Winston has her executed, making his point by having four assassins shoot her in the head in unison.
What I find to be the best part about John Wick is how it handles its central conflict. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Iosef is a dead man walking. Indeed, when Iosef, a wholly inexperienced, wannabe criminal, vows to finish the job by killing the king of hitmen, Viggo merely tells him to leave his sight. It’s true he and his cohorts managed to beat John into submission, but the assassin was legitimately caught off-guard. Now that John is focused on his task, no force on Earth will save Iosef. He could take refuge in a reinforced panic room and it would, at best, delay John for a few hours. Amusingly, one of Iosef’s guards is seen playing a first-person shooter in a safe house. The inept criminal doesn’t seem too enchanted with these entertainment options when a real trained killer is bearing down on him.
In the hands of a less-skilled team, John Wick would be a boring watch in which the audience is just waiting for the pieces to fall into place. They manage to avoid this pitfall by shooting some of the grittiest, yet flashiest action sequences the world of cinema had ever seen. John is a remarkably good shot and has no qualms fighting dirty to survive. After all, concepts such as honor are meaningless in a line of work that rewards pragmatism. Therefore, for most of the film, you’re not questioning if John will prevail, but rather how – and the narrative always finds new ways to surprise you.
At the same time, while John is effectively a one-man army, the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that he’s not an invincible god of warfare. He is constantly reloading and his injuries are treated with the weight they deserve. While he proves highly effective when he is alert and actively gunning down Viggo’s associates, none of his skills can help him if he is unconscious. Although he gets his hands on a bulletproof vest, the impact of the shots still grievously injure him and they prove ineffective against knives and broken bottles. Even if John Wick isn’t the most suspenseful film out there, these subtle aspects go a long way in making his feats even more impressive.
I also have to say the ending developments were a perfect way to bookend the story. Viggo started off the film securing a deal that made him New York City’s kingpin. None of this would have been possible without John. After his son wrongs John, he then gets to watch his former second-in-command systematically destroy everything he ever worked for. By the end, he has lost his henchmen, money, son, and power, reducing him to a thug no higher in status than a common burglar. By the time he and John face off against each other, he has nothing left to lose except his life – and he doesn’t even retain that for long. Once his work is complete, John breaks into a waterfront animal clinic, releases a pit bull puppy slated to be euthanized, and walks away with it.
Keanu Reeves was in an interesting spot going into the 2010s. Though he certainly had many beloved films such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, and The Matrix under his belt, he was seen as something of a joke. Many came down to the conclusion that he wasn’t a versatile actor and his best moments were happy accidents. The exact veracity of this assessment is debatable, but with his directorial debut, Chad Stahelski was able to perfectly capitalize on Mr. Reeves’s strengths while steering away from his shortcomings. Delivered in a highly appreciated show-don’t-tell style with several hints of black comedy throughout, and you have yourself a solid revenge film that showcases what one can accomplish with the bare minimum of context.
Final Score: 7/10