John Wick (2015)
Poor sad Keanu. There he sits, moping around his ultra-modern Hamptons townhouse, mournfully reveling in the recent cancer ridden death of his beautiful wife. It was her feminine influence and the promise of a life brimming with affection and love that successfully lured the titular John Wick away from the lucrative employment of a powerful New York crime syndicate, more ruthless than the Mafia and with more success than any of the other immigrant mobs the new kids on the block are headed by American cinema’s current bête noire – the Russians. These new interlopers are embodied in the gruff exterior of chief antagonist Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), a visionary wise enough to know when his spoilt brat son (Alfier Allen, best known as the tortured dude from Game Of Thrones) and his goons steal Wick’s car and execute his dog that he now has an epoch threatening foe to contend with. With nothing left to lose and his last hope of humanity cruelly extinguished Wick abandons any final pretense to a cherubic celebration, and not even his old partner in assassination Marcus (Willem Dafoe) can convince him to turn from his hellbent course to hades, as he explosively embarks on a carnage strewn mission of vengeance…
Citing a film as Keanu’s ‘greatest action flick since The Matrix’ isn’t really claiming much given his recent pedigree (did you see 47 Ronin? Sheesh) but in his directorial debut second unit stunt co-ordinator promoted to the riding-crop chair Chad Stahelski certainly knows his way around a action set-piece, and has the good sense to play the film as a genre blast without any pretensions of intellectual or ideological rigor. I thoroughly enjoyed the twilight movie world that the film conjures with its nocturnal palette, it’s a very stylized picture that operates in its own self-contained bubble, the kind of hyper-real realm where the merciless gunning down of a few dozen faceless henchmen barely makes a dent on the evening news. For the first two thirds of the picture the action scenes are outstanding, splattered with breathless carnage and peppered with more fatal headshots than a skid row Hollywood talent agency, an exquisite chain-reaction detonation of speed, editing and space that are played in long takes and unobtrusive wide shots as a conscious riposte to the shaky-cam tedium of the Bourne movie paddock. Stahelski and his screenwriter Derek Kolstad have clearly been looking at the likes of The Raid and been pining for the golden days of those heroic bloodshed abattoirs, musing that perhaps they can replicate the adrenaline overdose in a North American context, of maintaining the pace and energy of the Crank movies and manage a tribute to Jean Pierre Melville’s underworld here and John Woo’s moral codex there.
Ah, look at the cute ickle puppy, isn’t he sweet? It’s a stylish film with a clear attention paid to costume, hardware and location, and I was immediately gut-shot with a clever colour gradient to marry the plot with the surface. The washed out and bleached veneer of Wick’s lonesome life slowly shifts incrementally into warmer and more dangerous purples and crimsons as he wistfully returns to his old ways, a vivid encapsulation of his finding a new purpose and role in life, even if it is a somewhat nihilistic creed which offers no satisfaction nor salvation. We swiftly move clearly defined ‘movie-world’ of Armani clad assassins lounging around in Manhattan suites or sipping cocktails in techno ravaged nightclubs; of neutral havens such as the Prestige hotel which is considered sacred ground by the underworld which no wet-work is permitted to blight, there’s even a few faces from The Wire to put a grin on the faces of all you urban eavesdroppers and an amusing cameo from David The Warriors / Twin Peaks Patrick Kelly for guaranteed cult movie kudos.
It’s such a groaning shame then that the film just can’t suspend the high wire act of teeth rattling action and genre japes as it runs out of ammunition around the 2/3 mark, straining and limping like a gut-shot goon into its inevitable final act showdown which involves a helicopter escape, the docks, and a Kurosawa cribbed burst of inclement weather. Potentially entertaining characters that have been introduced earlier stand around looking as uncertain as the cul-de-sac plot contortions, particularly wasted is Adrianne Palicki as a sexy nemesis / liquidator whose presence seems to have been sheared down to the cutting room floor, and I always assumed that the first rule of action movies was to save the best for last rather than jamming your weapon with a stilted and servile conclusion. Still, it’s worth the price of admission alone for a couple of set-pieces which have thrown the gauntlet down for the best combat sequence trophy of the year (its kind of a spoiler but if you can’t resist then here), and given his newly restored respect it should be interesting to see what Refn does with Keanu’s bone crushing zen persona in the Neon Demon which is currently shooting in LA.. In style and literal execution John Wick is several octaves more frenzied and frolicking than the Wanted of the current action battlefields, but for genre aficionados Grosse Point Blank still clips this puppy from 2,000 yards;