I’ve grown weary of shootouts at the movies, but I have to admit that John Wick makes every bullet count. And there are a lot of bullets.
Keanu Reeves stars as the title character, a retired hit man who suffers a double tragedy at the movie’s start: the death of his ailing wife and an unfortunate incident involving some Russian mobsters and his dog. These two injustices intertwine in Wick’s head, so that furious revenge on the Russians essentially becomes Wick’s grieving process.
Manchester by the Sea this is not. Whereas that is a quiet, subdued look at the way one man internalizes his grief, John Wick depicts a man who unleashes his mourning on the world, preferably in the form of shots to the head. Reeves is working with two of his stunt coordinators from the Matrix movies, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. (Stahelski is the credited director.) But in terms of action, this is closer to the “gun fu” calisthenics best known from the films of John Woo (The Killer, Hard Boiled). At one point Wick invades an underground spa and he wields his gun as a cudgel as much as a firearm. Each physical confrontation is quick and cleanly staged; we’re dazed by the swiftness, but never left in confusion.
It isn’t just the cogent, crushing stunt work that sets the movie apart. Although John Wick is based on an original script by Derek Kolstad, the use of mise–en–scène would make you swear it was based on a graphic novel. Each frame is constructed with exquisite care—be it an early shot from behind a silhouetted man holding an umbrella at a cemetery, in which we can see Wick in the background burying his wife, or a later moment in which the mob boss (a slimy Mikael Nyqvist) recounts Wick’s lethal reputation and the camera cuts away to separate frames of Wick hammering open the concrete floor of his basement to get to his weapons cache.
As the man himself, Reeves gives one of his empty (in a good way) performances, which allows us to fill in the psychology while he takes care of the form. Always moving with purpose, improvising as if it was a part of his plan, Wick is in control—but not invincible. Among the few personal touches Reeves allows are labored breathing, convincing wincing, and the wearing of many wounds. It all adds up to the bracing construction of a mythical figure. John Wick is the feature-length version of the cliche warning, “You messed with the wrong man.”