Time was when the One-Man-Army subgenre of action movies was the cornerstone of the likes of Arnie, Sly and Bruce. You know, go in to a fight out-manned and out-gunned and yet still come out grinning the other side with a wise quip normally referencing the item used to dispatch the final bad guy. Shane Black was king of the genre. And then Jason Bourne came along and made it all very serious and since then there’s been outings with The Stath, in the shape of The Transporter, geriatric man Liam Neeson in Taken and numerous other contenders. Keanu Reeves of course is no stranger to dispatching hordes of villains but in John Wick he makes his dark and brooding ways of The Matrix look quite upbeat by comparison.
With his wife having just left this mortal coil John Wick (Reeves) receives a parting gift from her in the form of a cute little puppy. But no sooner has he bonded with the mutt it is killed by spoilt gangster brat Iosef (Alfie Allen). The problem is that Wick is no ordinary Joe, he’s a retired hitman, the guy you send to “kill the Boogeyman” and he’s out for revenge. It doesn’t bode well for Iosef until dear old daddy Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) steps in and puts a contract out on Wick’s head setting in motion a whole pattern of revenge and mayhem.
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are both former stunt coordinators and so certainly know their way round an action sequence. It’s here that Wick is at it’s best, incorporating elements of Gun-Fu, brutal smack-down punches and occasional vehicular warfare that would make the Fast & Furious team happy. As such John Wick works as a series of well executed, if slightly repetitive fights. The issue is it never really gels together with anything resembling a story.
Somewhere in there it at times feels as if Derek Kolstad’s script is doing everything with a wry wink and a nod to the over-the-top nature of it all, an almost pastiche in the vein of Adam Wingard’s dark comedy musing of You’re Next and The Guest. But Stahelski and Leitch don’t seem to be in on the joke enough to ram it home. As such Wick’s motives for going all Charlie Bronson on all and sundry feel comical without the laughs. There’s almost too much style going on, as if the filmmakers had watched a little too much Michael Mann or Nicolas Winding Refn and tried to inject that neon saturated palette into a film that needed a little more sheen to it.
Allen is typically sneering, the kind of character you desperately hope gets his comeuppance, and when he does it’s not nearly satisfying enough. Nyqvist is a little too eccentric to ever really menace as a big baddie and Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki gives a solid turn as a femme fatale like assassin but is only ever a side character at best. As such it’s left to Keanu to hold Wick together and he just about manages it, his almost monosyllabic delivery making his occasional outbursts of rage all the more satisfying.
When the action is going John Wick burns bright but it’s never enough to grab your full attention, as such you just hope John Wick 2 burns at both ends with action and a more comical tone.