(Note: Welcome to the first part of this John Wick-centered series where every week I’ll take a look at a new piece of John Wick media in preparation for the much-anticipated Chapter 4. Every Wednesday this month, I’ll have a new retrospective on John Wick, including the movies and the 2019 video game. So, basically, Wick Wednesdays! Now, onto the first movie:)
There was – and still is – a time when action films often treated their audiences like brain-dead idiots with nothing to offer except casting recognizable figures like Dwayne Johnson and promising explosions, sex, and big-scale action. While the promise of non-stop action may sound enticing, it can quickly become monotonous, repetitive, and even often offensive. We live in a sour age of film where Marvel is the leading action franchise, and every studio wants a part of that high-spectacle action and franchise cinematic-universe jackpot. What a time, then, for John Wick to come out almost ten years ago, an action movie that is both parts fun and sometimes tongue-in-cheek but knows when to slow down and is an ingeniously made movie in its own right.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve always wanted to give the original John Wick the light of day. That small action movie starring Keanu Reeves? The actor from Bill & Ted, Matrix, and other underwhelming, forgotten pieces like 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2013’s 47 Ronin? Just judging by the trailers alone, John Wick reeked of B-action-movie schlock, so I would always ignore it everywhere I went. It wasn’t until social media assured me that I need to give it a chance, but even then I always shrugged that off as a oh-so-cringy fandom. Conveniently, on the very night before John Wick: Chapter 2 came out in theaters, curiosity got the better of me and I threw on the first movie playing on a regular TV channel. With nothing else to do or watch that night, I half-heartedly turned right to it – and couldn’t take my eyes off it. From the phenomenal and unique lighting and cinematography, the heart-wrenching death of the titular character’s dog, to the smooth-as-butter gunplay and editing, I had but one regret that night: that I hadn’t witnessed this film sooner.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad, 2014’s John Wick tells the story of a man named – get this – John Wick, a retired hitman who is currently mourning the loss of his wife, who died of cancer. With his shadowy career and old comraderies now behind him, he receives a post-mortem gift from his wife: a puppy named Daisy, and it doesn’t take long for them to take a liking to each other. John now has a fresh start – he can grieve and live alone with the dog, the very final remnant of his dead wife, at his side. Things turn grim, however, when John stops at a gas station and runs into a young man named Iosef and his other lackeys. After a tense and hostile interaction, John leaves, thinking nothing of that encounter. That same night, John is attacked and knocked out cold in his own home by the men at the gas station, the sounds of his dog whining in distress before John loses consciousness. He wakes up – his car stolen and his dog brutally killed by those men. Refusing to be a victim of an attack and losing whatever sanity he had left when the last surviving memory of his wife taken from him, John returns to the work he left behind him in order to slay the men who wronged him.
“Just a fucking dog”,
Viggo Tarasov – Russian crime lord and Iosef’s father – taunts John late in the first movie. In almost any action movie, the death of the main character’s loved one comes to no surprise. It’s common in action movies that involve the demise of the main character’s wife, son, daughter, friend, the list just goes on; the same trope we see time and time again. We’ve become numb to it; we can watch someone get ran over by a bullet train and we’d call that entertainment. Where John Wick hits the hardest is the inclusion of a dog, often the treasure of any household, as the series’ catalyst for John’s rampage. Would John Wick be half as successful in its storytelling if it was his wife, instead, who was murdered by Iosef and his gang? Possibly, anything could work when done right. But I’m positive that many people, myself included, treasure their pet more than any other living person. A small, clueless animal ignorant of its mortality and the cruelty of the world, beaten or shot. If it was brutally taken away from you, how would you react if you had the skills and resources?
This harsh relatability is what makes John Wick so endearing as a character. Yes, the dog was a story beat meant to represent his late wife, but what we see as regular viewers is a dog having their life taken away from them and we see the owner grieving, and he’s thinking what we’re thinking “he could have stopped this”. The sadness and grief we see from John come from all of us who have something to love, whether they be animal or human. For a movie series famed for its over-the-top violence and Keanu Reeves of it all, the emotional richness of John Wick cannot and should not be ignored.
How the original John Wick excelled in emotional, personal stakes and compelling drama, it also succeeds in being a genuinely well-crafted action movie. It’s good. Damn good. Gone are the putrid techniques of over-dramatic close-ups, shaky cameras that somehow immerse you in the experience, and time-wasting slow-motion, as John Wick will proceed to have the most stylish, smooth-as-butter action I can think of. Like a slightly-less gritty and vicious The Raid, the gunfights in John Wick go on so buttery-smoothly as you witness every piece of the action. Dispatching swarms of bad guys, the reloading of his gun, and changing out his weapon for another, not a single moment in the action goes to waste. Every bit of action has a reaction, and you are invited to see it all. Of course, the sequels will take this action to the extreme, and we’ll get to this when we get to those. But for being the first movie, it’s got its action set-pieces down to a T thanks to the commitment and dedication of leading action star Keanu Reeves.
Speaking of Keanu Reeves, this series’ identity is surrounded just as much by the Matrix star as much as it does blood, guns, and pencils. There are novels centered around how fantastic of a person Keanu is, both by everyday people on the streets and fellow co-stars in movie sets, so it’s easy to see just how much of a charming presence Keanu is in this movie. Keanu’s commitment to the role can’t be understated, as the man has tirelessly learned true gun training for John Wick, learning each gun prop and how it operates like the back of his hand.
It helps that the role of John Wick was absolutely revelatory for Keanu Reeves. In an era where washed-up middle-aged actors try to make a comeback through simple shoot-em-up flicks, Reeves seems to be the most successful. Understandable, considering how much physical demands John Wick requires from him. What makes Keanu so impressive in the leading role is the fact that he barely speaks throughout. So much of the film and John Wick’s body language are portrayed through the fight choreography. Though there can be critiques of Keanu’s dry verbage, it helps that other beloved veteran actors such as Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Nyqvist speak to Keanu’s level; every actor is on the same playing field and no one is out-acting the other. Criticize his weird speech all you’d like, yet it is the perfect delivery this movie needs.
That’s why John Wick as a character is so fascinating. The enemies of the movie always refer to him as “the Babayaga”, or “the Boogeyman”. Viggo Tarasov is the big baddie of the film, and in any other film would be presented as a great threat for the protagonist. But in this film, the roles are reversed; instead of John Wick watching his back for Viggo, Viggo is haunted by the idea of John Wick tracking him down. It’s so rare for a movie villain to be so terrified of the main hero; imagine if Darth Vader expressed fear of Luke Skywalker, or Ivan Drago with Rocky Balboa. From the first scene of Viggo describing John to Iosef, Viggo talks up John like he’s a mythological legend, even telling a moment where John managed to kill a group of men in a bar with nothing but a pencil, but not before talking about John succeeding in an “impossible task”. The movie goes so hard to paint John Wick as being unstoppable, almost to a fault, since it makes the actual threat look so unintimidating by comparison. But this is a John Wick movie, where we want to watch John succeed in striking fear in their eyes. There’s a scene late in the movie where John is at a nightclub to kill Iosef, and stealthily stabs a security guard in the neck, with John ruthlessly staring into the man’s eyes as he dies, affirming to him he’ll be the last thing he’ll ever see. It’s a hauntingly beautiful moment that perfectly encapsulates the fear John Wick puts on his enemies.
We’ll soon see the lore and worldbuilding of John Wick get more and more global and convoluted as the franchise goes on. Being the first movie, John Wick only gives you a mere taste of what the professional world of a hitman is like and how the organization operates. They have a code of honor, they have their own economic system, there’s a list of do’s and don’t’s while on company grounds, and breaking those rules could render you “ex-communicado”, which is essentially a death sentence for any assassin unfortunate enough to break the rules. Ian McShane plays Winston, a man of high position in the underground society and oversees all assassin work. He runs a New York Continental Hotel that acts as a neutral hotspot for assassins, where conducting assassin business is strictly forbidden. John Wick abides all these rules, knowing breaking them could cost them his freedom. It’s an interesting world, and it’ll get crazier from here.
John Wick is shoot-em-up perfection. John Wick wears so much personality on its sleeve and rejuvenated the action genre to new heights by setting a new precedent. John Wick was a turning point for me, as it was one of the very first movies I’ve seen that truly made me love the craftsmanship of cinema. It’s an endearing and emotional modern classic, and truly one of the best examples of character-building and world-building out there. John Wick, much like the titular character, cannot be stopped.