By Will Ross
For years, I've avoided this, its first sequel, and Atomic Blonde, in large part because the kind of acclaim they received tended to overlap heavily with The Raid 2: Berendal, a film I do not care for. The Raid 2, for my money, is a film interested in intricately choreographed action without character (let alone characters), which frequently takes as its emphasis the physical brutalization and mutilation of the body, with an expectation that this will be played sheerly for laughs. It's a film that crosses the line between a cathartic, escapist enjoyment of carefully staged violence anchored in an emotional context, and a giddy display of pain and technical virtuosity without attempting a structure or sense of progression in each action scene. Descriptions of the John Wicks tended to both explicitly cite The Raid 2 as similar, and describe John Wick in nearly identical terms.
Regardless, like the Raid movies, John Wick and its Chapter 2 sequel have been common in discussions of contemporary action cinema and its exemplars, and as someone who cares very much about the genre and would like to see its potential ways forward outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can no longer ignore these. Wick, like a lot of action movies that boast technically astonishing fight choreography, is directed by two veterans of stuntwork, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; the question with auteurs who come into the genre from this direction is whether they are only interested in feature length technical expressions of the craft they practiced outside the director's chair, or whether they're interested in dramatic modulation emotionally resonant aesthetic choices, technique that expresses more than technical strength.
The answer is that they do care — in fact, sometimes they seems to care more than their writer Derek Kolstad — though as of this first entry they’re inexperienced hands at showing it. John Wick's action deserves the praise it gets as a technical showcase for Stahelski and Leitch, their stunt team, and Keanu Reeves; it is also, thankfully, an action movie with an interest in how its characters think — not to mention it knows how to tell a fucking joke. The brutality on display here is undeniable, but the film takes its time over around 30 minutes to establish it as an almost abstract metaphor for the title character's rage: rage that, with all the senseless loss and grief that one can endure by chance in life, human beings can also enact cruelty by choice. In John Wick, the thematic locus of that cruelty remains frustratingly abstract; crime-revenge cliche explanations for the senseless pain that Wick endures are trotted out — "the past", "bad luck", "people don't change" — but don't actually find much in the narrative to support them, and tend to come off as a self-serious hodgepodge attempt to simulate emotional grandeur without doing the work for it. Nonetheless, they kill the guy's adorable fucking puppy. There's a dramatic core there to work with. I mean, I don't know about you, but I love puppies.
If Wick embraced that kinda goofy degree of emotional simplicity more, it'd probably do it a lot more good than the way it strains to show import. While I genuinely appreciate the time the film takes to establish Wick as a man suffering terrible grief in the opening sequences, both the writing and direction of these scenes are full of cliches and feel more perfunctory than they clearly intend to, with hardly any inspired moments that establish a genuine connection. (An exception: the puppy wakes up Wick just seconds before his alarm clock buzzes. Awww. I love puppies.)
Regardless, the shot direction, sound, and music of the pre-puppy-killing scenes are thoroughly unimpressive: boilerplate drama without much more to than kinda hackneyed screenplay gestures and a blue filter to lend it emotional heft. One could levy complaints at Reeves’s customarily subdued performance for not expressing more, but it’s entirely in keeping with his character. Most frustrating in these scenes is the wandering, isolated piano chords, so familiar to this kind of material that it actively saps personality out of the film when it plays (the score turns out to be by far the film’s biggest liability). One moment in particular does far more to legitimize the sorrow being pushed forward by these scenes than any other: Willem Dafoe, whose sunken features can without effort express as much long-suffered pain as any actor trying their absolute hardest, offers Wick’s single best line delivery when he tells John, with a mixture of boredom, pity, and personal melancholy, “There’s no rhyme or reason to this life. It’s days like today scattered among the rest.” Dafoe does solid work throughout, but this is plainly the moment he was cast for, and it’s the highlight of the film’s vulnerable side.
Eventually, though, the bad mobsters kill the puppy and beat up John and steal his car, and the fighting begins. I won’t go so far as to say that the plot is unimportant going forward — it’s pretty stock, but it’s a plot, and it is used to propel the action material and maintain a sense of stakes — but there’s not much reason to detail it or its effects any further than I did between those em dashes just now. This isn’t entirely a complaint, as just because something is “simple” doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting or serve the work as a whole. Still, there’s a thin line between simplicity and dullness that the film’s plotty sections sometimes fall on the wrong side of; specifically, I wish there was more playfulness in how these mobster characters are written (beyond a funny running gag that, contra standard depictions of overconfident, egomaniacal organized criminals, everyone seems kind of resigned to the fact that Wick is bound to slaughter them effortlessly).
One of the film’s chief pleasures is that slaughtering dozens of people does look hard. Partly thanks to the fact that Reeves accomplishes the vast majority of his own stunts, a sense of constant, extreme bodily exertion comes through in every gunfight. It’s not just good because it looks hard, either; I would argue that the greatest (and most commonly neglected) asset of watching an action scene is showing how combatants adopt tactics and then shift them over the course of battle, and while John Wick does occasionally fall into rote cover-and-suppress-and-shoot staging with little to distinguish the behaviour at the end of the fight from the start, it otherwise succeeds through a pliable formula: John Wick and a few dozen baddies are in a room; the baddies set the pace and direction of battle; John adapts. How John adapts presents dozens of little surprises, as if every few seconds he solves a complex puzzle using only his body and his gun.
The action moves so fast that we really do need to give Stahelski and Leitch props for just how well they understands action staging; it’s very rare that the camera’s movement and the cutting create spatial confusion, the most important objects and events are most always emphasized by the framing, and the graphic orientations and motions within the frame create clean, easily followed cuts. The only serious liability on following the action is the film’s bizarre commitment to low-contrast, low-highlight cinematography, perhaps selected because of its associations with a grittier tone and “artier” visuals; this compressed dynamic range inevitably reduces the audience’s ability to distinguish details which, in fast-paced, complicated action sequences, can make it harder than it should be to figure out who is doing what.
The overall camera positioning conceits are solid enough that I can’t help but lay some blame for this with Jonathan Sela, a cinematographer whose work I’ve yet to find cause to enjoy. Besides the contrast, Sela also has serious issues with composing interesting, well-balanced frames. The scope ratio of 2.35:1 that’s become standard issue in mass-commercialized and genre pictures is almost certainly the hardest standard frame to compose for, so heavily horizontal as it is, and Sela hardly ever martials the geometry of his shots into something memorable or expressive — and when he does, the contrast scuttles it. John Wick also opts for a look that usually favours strong, non-natural colour washes, and that can be an interesting approach with a lot of creative potential. Limiting the colour range gives the eye less means to delineate the subjects of an image, which can be compensated for by — you guessed it — a higher contrast, or careful framing. It’s all a good example of decisions that can be intellectualized in a vacuum, but wind up doing damage to each other in practice, and aren’t especially well-executed taken on their own anyway.
Unfortunately we can’t leave the film alone with that sweeping dismissal. If you’re one for reading parentheticals (and fuck everyone who’s not, am I right folks?), you probably noticed that I said the score was John Wick’s biggest liability. And it is. The music for this movie is downright awful, and once the movie exits its low gear of ominous, metallic drones and boring piano chords, it moves into the equally thoughtless but far more irritating mode of boring rock pieces, anchored by thuddingly static drum lines and generic guitar chords. Even pre-existing music like Marilyn Manson’s “Killing Strangers” fails to stand out whatsoever from the musical tapestry on display outside of the vocals. For all the failings of the photography, you can at least detect that someone wanted to think of ways to make this look different from other movies. It doesn’t come across like any effort was made to craft a distinct soundtrack here. Frankly, it sounds like something pulled from a sound library and slapped on the soundtrack with only cursory attention to the film’s emotional ebbs and flow.
Underlying all these issues is a sense that, in spite of honest efforts by Stahelski and Leitch to develop their movie’s personality beyond that of a stunt/fight choreography extravaganza, John Wick doesn’t have a clear personality that you could describe without contradicting yourself. Yet I still liked it, not only for the effort on display, but for the numerous moments when it succeeds so well, most often in moments when John dives, rolls, whips around, or tackles his way through foes who almost never seem like they’re designed to be just stupid enough kill. But it also doesn’t look anything like a revelatory piece of contemporary action cinema to me. The landscape before and after this came out in 2014 doesn’t seem that different. It’s hard to say this is more than one more shoot-em-up, scattered among the rest.
Other Essays in This Series