‘Styolence’. That’s what this movie is all about.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what I mean by that term, as it’s an amalgam of the two factors that are key to John Wick’s appeal. It’s a hyper-stylized slice of cinema that’s very (very, very) heavy on the violence but without some of the major faults and baggage of its peers, at once managing to be serious without seeming po-faced, throwing in visual flourishes that enhance the experience rather than distract from it, and not concerning itself with unnecessary convolutions to plot or character. It’s a completely self-aware film that acknowledges the simplicity of what it sets out to do and the character archetypes it presents; bad guys do bad things to people, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) crosses their path, John Wick sets about putting serious hurt on bad guys. Or, to put it in simpler terms: Keanu kills the shit out of everything for 90 minutes. And it’s AWESOME.
Although ‘awesome’ gets thrown around far too often on the internet (and I’m just as guilty of that as the next man), it really is the snuggest fit when describing John Wick. The film evades critical terms like good, bad, intelligent or stupid because often during its relatively-brief running time, it can be all of those things at once. Somehow, your brain never gets tangled up by this paradox, or wants you to hit pause and consider exactly what you’re watching. That’s how awesome it is. It’s a straight-up, no nonsense action film in the purest sense, in that it gives the audience everything it needs to in its first ten minutes to set the stage for the destructive consequences that will follow for the entire rest of the movie.
So, who or what exactly, is John Wick? The viewer is given a refreshingly small amount of backstory for him, except for the fact that he was once a world-class assassin who stepped out of an incredibly lucrative (based on the size of his house and car anyway) killing career for love, only to experience sudden and traumatic loss. As the story begins John is trying to rebuild his life, and it’s an unfortunate chance meeting that pulls him right back into violence, as a brief and tense conversation at a gas station with thuggish Russian upstart Iosef Taranov (Alfie Allen) kick-starts a chain of events that leads to the resurfacing of the John of old. I won’t spoil the precise details of the deus ex machina that causes John to put down the bottle and pick up his pistols, but within the heightened reality of the movie, it’s more than enough to justify the dark and bloody path that John leaves in his wake thereafter. This is a revenge tale, after all, but it’s presented in such a way that is an absolute thrill to behold.
This brings us back to that opening term: ‘styolence’. While the plot and motivations are, on a basic level, as old as storytelling itself, the visual presentation in this action revenge thriller is not. The action is constantly inventive and uncompromisingly brutal, and filmed with a consistent fluidity that’s a joy to watch, as the film delivers set piece after set piece that make the jaw drop. It’s fast and exciting, never remotely threatening to become dull, and featuring handful upon handful of bonebreaking and bloodshed. The physical brawls are rough, dirty and real enough, but it’s in the gunplay that John Wick really shines, and in terms of comparison to another recent action classic, perhaps the highest compliment I can give the film is that it does for headshots what The Raid did for kicks and punches. It’s that good.
Reeves is on stellar form here, and by stellar I mean that this is as good as a performance as we’ve seen from him. He’s not a man known for his theatrical prowess, but the alternating emotions of sadness (yes yes, ‘Sad Keanu is Sad’), blankness and driven rage fall comfortably with his limited range. More to the point, it’s the physicality he brings to the role that really makes his turn (and the movie itself) a standout. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (working from their own screenplay) expertly utilize Reeves’ extensive fight training and experience to maximum effect here, using dozens of sustained takes to show the audience that no, this isn’t a stunt counterpart dishing out (and receiving) all this pain – it really is Reeves, right in the thick of it, and it hugely helps both to sell him in the role and keep the action invigorating.
John Wick will never be the sort of film that appeals across the board. Highbrow reviewers may only see the film as pretty, forgettable trash, or violence, violence, violence (often the same kind of aging journalists that can’t fathom people enjoying an action film without commencing a murderous rampage as soon as it concludes), but for fans of pure action and pure entertainment, John Wick is a total slam-dunk. It has Reeves on his A-game, stunning direction, vicious hardcore combat with hands, feet and weapons… and a cute dog.
You seriously need it in your life.