John Wick (2014)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Riddick, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Dean Winter
This afternoon my husband and I decided to watch John Wick. I had read some reviews indicating that for an action movie about a hitman, it was better than one might anticipate. Having viewed it, I have to concur with those opinions.
The movie does a lot of the same kind of thing you see in other action films of the same type: there are some big set-pieces in which Reeves' John Wick character takes out a small army of opponents with relatively little difficulty because he's supposed to be the baddest badass of them all. There's a car chase. There's lots of fighting and shooting. But the way that it does them isn't the way these sorts of scenes are being done in recent films.
We saw Jason Bourne recently, the 2016 entry in the Bourne film franchise, and I was rather disappointed in it. I have a certain fondness for the first film in the series, The Bourne Identity. But 14 years later Jason Bourne had fallen into the reliance on rapid editing and "shaky-cam" cinematography that passes for exciting action scenes in films lately. During that film's "boss" fight scene, it was almost impossible for me to tell what the two combatants were doing. Made only two years before Jason Bourne, John Wick avoids those action-movie stylistic cliches and goes back to an older style of editing and camera-work in which the audience can actually see what's happening. That's not to say there aren't plenty of cuts in the action scenes, but they're farther apart, and the shots are long enough and the camera position far enough away from the actors that the audience can make out each movement. After watching a couple of scenes done this way, I realized that I'd become so (reluctantly) accustomed to the other style that John Wick's action scenes seemed almost as if they'd been slowed down. I had to remind myself that actually everything in other movies has been sped up. It was really refreshing to be able to see all the fight choreography clearly.
Another thing John Wick does is keep the plot simple. Jason Bourne is all about spies, so it's not surprising that the story is complicated. John Wick is about a hitman going out to get revenge. That's it. He's not rescuing anyone, he's not trying to steal the mob boss's big stash or recover some information that is being used to blackmail him. He isn't even trying to get out of the business. He's just trying to punish someone for doing him wrong. That simplicity stands the movie in good stead.
John Wick also has a really amazing cast. Look at that cast list up above. John Leguizamo and Ian McShane aren't in it much, but when they are they shine. They're not just there to get some other big names on the marquee. Keanu does just fine in the lead role. It isn't a stretch for him, but there's something to be said for finding your niche and sticking to it. I know a lot of people think he's not a good actor, and while I'll certainly admit there are many better performers, he's good in the right part. My husband always says that his bar for judging a performance is an actor's ability to display grief convincingly, and in a scene near the beginning of the film Reeves has to do that. He does it well.
Other things I enjoyed about this film: the Russian mobsters speak Russian and are subtitled. The movie physics seem like real-world physics; no one made any incredible leaps or rail-kills, and there were no exploding cars or springboard jumps. The guns ran out of bullets in what seemed like a reasonable amount of time. Most importantly, my husband didn't cringe or complain about any of the firearms action. It's one of his pet peeves that people in movies usually do really ridiculous things with guns.
The film isn't without its share of movie tropes: near the beginning there's a funeral taking place in the rain. The hero is able to walk away with injuries that would incapacitate a normal person and also miraculously avoids any serious bruising on his face. But in defense of these examples, the film does show it raining again in later scenes, and the protagonist gets stitches and limps about painfully after being injured.
While I wouldn't rate John Wick as one of the best movies I've ever seen, or even one of he best action movies, I have to say that it's a decent movie and worth watching if you want to see an old-school action film where you can actually figure out what's going on.