John Wick (2014)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 10/24/14
Producers: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski, Eva Longoria
Directors: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, cameo by Kevin Nash

A delightfully grim revenge film about a retired hitman named John Wick (Keanu Reeves) who is still considered a legend in the criminal underworld. When an unfortunate series of events takes away all that he holds dear, he comes out of retirement and starts down the road to revenge. Fearing a bloodbath of epic proportions, a former associate and Russian crime lord named Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) attempts to negotiate with Wick, but the matter can only be settled in blood. With a considerable bounty on his head, Wick proceeds to methodically tear apart the Russian underground, murdering anyone who crosses his path.

This is definitely a style over substance action film, but the style is wonderful and the action pieces are rewarding. Despite the lack of substance, the film is remarkably well written and the set up is superb. It's rare that I praise a film's dialog, but "John Wick" is surprisingly smart and subtle. The film does an excellent job of creating and upholding the legend of John Wick without any back story at all. Relationships are established with simple conversations, which are then validated by the action. The larger than life characters exist in a fascinating underworld of crime, corruption, and vice, and behave appropriately for that environment without any attitude or bullshit. Everything is pure business, straight and simple, which is a refreshing departure from the norm.

With two stuntmen directing the film, the action scenes are nicely staged and brutally intense. The close quarters gun fights are raw, vicious, and over the top, and there are some very impressive hand-to-hand grappling fights. I was hoping for more Hong Kong styled mayhem in terms of flashy, kinetic combat, but that might have made the film unintentionally campy. Keanu Reeves delivers a surprisingly strong and emotionally moving performance as Wick, and Michael Nyqvist is an excellent opposing force to Wick's unstoppable vendetta. Adrianne Palicki gives a deliciously wicked turn as a fellow hitwoman, and nearly steals the show with her hotel room fight scene. Overall, I found "John Wick" to be extremely enjoyable, but just short of greatness. The set up and characterizations are outstanding, but once the film kicks into high gear, there's a little too much dead time between set pieces.