Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

John Wick and the revenge of the underdog

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Keanu Reeves in John Wick

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up on video with John Wick, the latest—and in some ways the most appealing—entry in a growing subgenre of modestly scaled thrillers designed to appeal to hardcore action fans. In era when even the latest installments in the Die Hard or Expendables franchises are cut to avoid an R rating, a cohort of smaller action movies, like The Raid: Redemption or Dredd, has emerged to fill the gap, using minuscule budgets and straightforward stories to deliver real bloodshed and gunplay. If John Wick is the most likable of the bunch, that’s due largely to casting: it’s as packed with welcome faces in supporting roles as a Michael Mann film, and it’s also a surprising showcase for the talents of Keanu Reeves. Reeves is often dismissed as an actor, but in the right part, in movies from Point Break to Speed, he has a precise, graceful physical presence, and it’s never been so capably used as it is here. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch frame and cut the action to show us as much of their star as possible, and in scenes like the extended close-quarters gun battle scored to Kaleida’s “Think,” in which Reeves mows down scores of goons in a crowded nightclub, we’re close to the balletic ideal of gun fu. Even after an hour of nonstop action, we aren’t wearied by it, and much of this is thanks to the approach allowed by Reeves’s particular set of skills.

Yet there’s a touch of dissonance to the casting that undermines the premise ever so slightly. Wick himself was originally conceived as a character in his sixties—screenwriter Derek Kolstad envisioned him as Paul Newman—and while Reeves may be over fifty, he sure as heck doesn’t look it. As a result, Wick never comes off as vulnerable or outmatched, even when he’s up against a seemingly inexhaustible army of antagonists. The movie, to my relief, is clever about world-building and backstory, and elements like Wick’s late wife are introduced with a refreshing concision, but it miscalculates a little when it comes to setting up its hero as the ultimate killing machine. There’s an amusing monologue delivered by Michael Nyqvist, as a charming Russian mobster, explaining the origins of Wick’s nickname: “He’s not the boogeyman, he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman.” But the story comes before we’ve seen Wick in action, which spoils the surprise, such as it is, when he springs to life. The movie could have delayed that piece of exposition much longer, as Snowpiercer does, or even omitted it entirely. Reeves’s physicality, when activated, is more eloquent than any speech, as is Nyqvist’s initial muted response on the phone when told that Wick is coming after them: “Oh.”

Keanu Reeves in John Wick

And as much as I like John Wick, I can’t help but wonder how it might have played with a hero who seemed at genuine risk. I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than the scene in The Limey when Terence Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, gets to his feet, pulls the gun from the back of his waistband, and totters back inside to wreak his unseen revenge. It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up. Recast it with, say, Jason Statham, and it’s just another action beat, maybe a bit more inventive than most. Revenge narratives are inherently more satisfying when the protagonist’s resources are reduced to a minimum, but John Wick doesn’t have much interest in this: Wick is superbly trained, as well as possessed of all but limitless funds and access to weaponry, and his reputation precedes him. As a result, we’re deprived of one of the most satisfying conventions in any revenge story, as the villains slowly begin to realize what they’re really up against. Replace “John Wick” in every line of dialogue with “Batman,” as in “He stole Batman’s car and killed his dog,” and you get a sense of how foreordained the action becomes. It’s fun, in its own way, but it also denies itself a more delicious buildup, and for no particular reason.

Looking back, I feel like I’m being harder on this movie than I meant to be: in most respects, it’s a superb little exercise. But the script is written with such clarity and skill that we’re all the more aware of its acts of triangulation. John Wick begins with a nice, straightforward premise—Wick goes after the mob after they kill his dog—but it dilutes it toward the end, when Wick loses his mentor as well. I can understand the impulse to raise the stakes for the third act, but it would have been more effective to make the movie entirely about the dog: for most viewers, a dog’s death is more than enough reason to drive a revenge story forward. (About ten minutes into the movie, my wife, who clearly knew nothing about it going in, said in complete seriousness: “I really hope the dog doesn’t die.”) John Wick, at its best, is a reminder of the pleasures of economy, from the clean lines of its story to its striking, silent hero: Reeves probably has fewer words to speak here than any lead actor in years, and we don’t miss them. The fact that it works so well with its bones so exposed is a tribute to everyone involved. But it remains a slick, efficient toy, rather than a movie, like The Limey, that drills into something deeper about how we’d all like to carry ourselves with our backs against the wall. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask from a film content to linger luxuriantly on its surfaces. But in the sequel, I’m hoping that this young dog can show us a few new tricks.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2015 at 8:41 am

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