It’s interesting that the titular figure (Keanu Reeves) in John Wick, a visceral and vivid actioner of uncommon simplicity, is presented as the fresh face of a brand-new action franchise when he’s actually a throwback to the unstoppable juggernaut in James Cameron’s The Terminator. That’s not a knock so much as a raised eyebrow aimed at the kinds of characters that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch and writer Derek Kolstad think modern-day audiences want to watch. And after sitting through the slick and stylish feast of action trash they’ve whipped up, it’s easy to nod your head and acknowledge that they’re onto something.
After all, even though Wick – an ex-assassin who goes back to work when the pig-headed son (Alfie Allen) of New York’s uppermost Russian mob boss (Michael Nyqvist) steals his prized Mustang and brutishly kills the puppy that Wick’s wife left behind to help him cope with her death from an undisclosed illness – is a veritable weapon of mass destruction, leaving absolute devastation in his wake with barely a scratch to show for it, he’s a surprisingly compelling protagonist. Besting every opponent with perfect form, moving so gracefully that he resembles some badass ballet dancer of bullets and bloodshed, Wick is a truly kick-ass creation.
Stahelski and Leitch construct a rich, noir-influenced world for him to conduct his business. Partnering with ace cinematographer Jonathan Sela, they pull off some of the most visually enthralling action sequences this side of The Raid: Redemption – one scene in particular, a bloodstained shootout soaked in the neon lights of a sketchy nightclub, could make for a pretty awesome coffee table book. John Wick is so much fun to watch from a visual perspective that, even though its character’s robotic efficiency lessens the stakes from most of its scenes, it’s damnably easy to just get swept up by it. Kolstad’s impressive world-building helps, but the visuals are what really hypnotize.
And what’s wrong with getting drawn in by an action movie that actually entertains, and entertains as restlessly as John Wick does? Absolutely nothing. From the high-caliber actors like Nyqvist, Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe bringing delightful dimension to cut-out characters, to the cool-as-a-cucumber one-liners, to Reeves’ most kinetic and enjoyable performance since the first Matrix, this is pulp action at its very best. It showcases a commitment to actual martial arts forms, some creative kills and, most excitingly for an action movie, a gritty, do-it-yourself-style realism. As bodies hurtle left and right, bullets tearing into brick and bone, fists flying with whiplash-inducing force, every movement feels refreshingly unfeigned. In a movieverse cluttered with CGI battles and the most able-bodied actors simply clobbering green-screen enemies, that’s a small miracle in of itself. John Wick, for its Terminator-esque hero and innate silliness, feels genuine.
As John Wick enters its final scenes, efforts to set up a sequel take shape but, for once, such movement doesn’t feel forced. Wick is the kind of protagonist who could lithely power a great many popcorn affairs, and Reeves is the kind of actor who might actually make such a commitment, given how expertly he embodies the character. “People keep asking if I’m back, and I haven’t really had an answer, but yeah… I’m thinking I’m back,” Wick barks, his eyes fiery, right before unleashing utter hell on his opponents in a later scene. Bring it on, John – us action aficionados could really use more heroes cut from your same badass, bloodstained cloth, but, until those characters make their presences known, we’ll gladly settle for some more of you.
On Blu-Ray, John Wick is a mesmerizing watch, with the 1080p transfer abiding by the directors’ stylish color grading, which bathes shots in various hues, most of them blue, green or yellow. In some earlier scenes, excessive use of shadow drains some vibrancy from shots, but detail is generally strong throughout, and the more inspired scenes in the film are communicated faithfully and with great clarity.
The release’s Dolby TrueHD Atmos 7.1 audio track takes no prisoners, battering the audience with a boisterous mix of action sound effects, from jarring gunshots to shattering glass and roaring car engines. The immersion it establishes is impressive, with the listener feeling almost embedded within the film’s many fight sequences, and the only place it falters is in the transition between action and softer, dialogue-driven scenes. Though all the dialogue is clean and crystal-clear, some viewers may find themselves fiddling with the volume more than usual.
Special features are a strong suit for this release. On the Blu-Ray combo pack, which also includes a DVD, an iTunes-compatible digital copy and a UV copy, extras include:
- Audio Commentary by Filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
- Don’t Fuck with John Wick (15:17)
- Calling in the Cavalry (11:58)
- Destiny of a Collective (6:19)
- The Assassin’s Code (5:18)
- The Red Circle (6:26)
- NYC Noir (6:00)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:32)
This assortment of extras gives an insightful look into the making of John Wick. The audio track finds Stahelski and Leitch in light spirits, discussing the sillier aspects of their experience making the film while not skimping on their discussion of the action cinematography, visual look of certain scenes and overall shape of the film. “Don’t Fuck with John Wick” digs into the action, with some sublime behind-the-scenes footage shown. It’s apparent from that extra just how seriously Reeves and company took making John Wick look realistic. “Calling in the Cavalry” feels more like a back-up feature, focusing on the second unit team and how John Wick was put together and sold as a project. If you didn’t get your fill of Stahelski and Leitch on the commentary track, “Destiny of a Collective” is all about their fruitful partnership. “The Assassin’s Code” is, as the name suggests, about the lives that John Wick and the other hitmen in the movie live, while “The Red Circle” is entirely about that aforementioned nightclub sequence. Finally, “NYC Noir” takes a look at the film’s stylistic choices and use of New York City as a setting.
As an action film, John Wick is undemanding, no-frills entertainment, the likes of which we don’t see that often these days. For a movie to be both meticulously made and ridiculously entertaining is rare beyond belief, but John Wick is somehow both a triumph of style and spectacle. Reeves is stunningly good, and the world that John Wick‘s filmmakers establish for him to play in is a fun, complicated one that could easily be revisited in future films.
Whether John Wick will birth a franchise remains to be seen, but by the end of this first film, the character has already made a better case for himself returning to the silver screen than most big-budget franchise-kickstarters ever do. If you’re looking for a great drama with emotive characters and razor-sharp scripting, look elsewhere – John Wick is your popcorn pleasure alternative, a perfectly primed B-movie that aims to entertain and hits the bullseye in every department. It’s hard to ask for more than that.
Like its unstoppable badass of a title character, John Wick hits hard and fast with staggering efficiency, but its stylish visuals and kinetic energy render it such an intoxicating popcorn pleasure that you'll (for once) be left wanting an encore as the credits roll.