[Flashback Review] John Wick Is A Modern Kick In The Face For The Action Genre

Or, more appropriate to Mr. Wick, pistol blast to the head.

Note: this article was originally posted on Geek Binge, my former website, around the time the original John Wick was released. Now that John Wick: Chapter 2 is coming out, I figured a re-posting would be appropriate. Enjoy!

This might be weird to say when you look at the film industry on a grander scale, but I really feel like we don’t get pure action movies anymore. Yeah, action itself is an element that it utilized in film more than ever before (mostly on account of the rise of the action heavy superhero genre), but straight action films like Die Hard or Commando seem to not be made as much as they were in the 80’s or 90’s. I mean it makes sense they’re not — films like that used to be the ones that appeased the most to the masses, and now the masses have moved to comic book movies to scratch that particular itch. And slowly, more modern movies that try to send up the old school action movie approach (The Expendables, Escape Plan, all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent projects really) have failed. But where oh where are our new, pure, unadulterated action movies?

Enter John Wick, everybody.

The story of John Wick can honestly be summed up in just a couple sentences, and I kind of love the the movie even more for it. John Wick is a man with many skills. His wife dies and gives him a puppy upon her death bed. A Russian mobster breaks in the next day, steals Wick’s car, and kills the puppy. Now Wick is going to murder the shit out of them.

Sure there’s a few more things going on that I’ll get into in a second, but the pure gist of the film is the above sentence, and I find that wonderfully refreshing. A film like John Wick doesn’t need a complex story: all it needs is a sense of internal logic and motivation, and the action should be enough to carry things forward. This was a lesson that Gareth Evans taught us with The Raid, and himself seemed to forget with The Raid 2.

And The Raid series is truly what I was thinking about in my time watching John Wick — which is a high honor in and of itself for an action film. I think both Raid films present some of the best action ever put to film and, while John Wick clearly isn’t in the same ballpark, that doesn’t make the action work here any less of an achievement. Pretty much every set-piece is freaking fantastic, and have a sense of pacing and energy that absolutely any action film would die for.

There’s one scene in particular that features John Wick in a nightclub that will probably end up as one of my favorite scenes of the year, and truly shows off the action prowess of former stunt coordinators turned directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch who, despite what the credits say, co-directed John Wick together. Following Wick I’m super looking forward to see what the pair will be up to in the future…although, with luck, one of those things will be John Wick 2 (Editor’s Note from the future: it was!)

Because as good as the action in this film is, you really need a strong central character in order to make everything worthwhile. And on that end, John Wick is a fantastic protagonist: he’s super mysterious and not much is said about him in the actual movie but, just like with the simple plot, I think the general mystery of John Wick ends up benefiting John Wick to a large degree. We get fed the standard “ex-covert Black ops Super Saiyan hitman” mumbo jumbo all the time, and I found it refreshing that this movie let John Wick’s actions and the way the characters respond to said actions speak for itself.

It also helps that Keanu Reeves is wonderful in the role as a stoic badass former hitman: I never though I would say that about a Reeves performance really, but what can I say? The part is arguably made for Reeves, and he knocks it out of the park. I have no qualms saying this is the best performance I’ve ever seen from the guy, and I’m excited to see him hopefully become invigorated in his career after this.

The other roles are great too, with Michael Nyqvist having fun as the main Russian bad guy; Alfie Allen continuing to do what Theon Greyjoy’s do best by fucking things up,; Adrienne Palicki in a fabulous turn as a female assassin; and Willem Dafoe being Willem Dafoe. A great cast here really.

But one of the surprise beauties of John Wick, quite frankly, is the world building. There’s a lot of really fun elements screenwriter Derek Kolstad added to his script here, at the center of which is a secret New York establishment that caters specifically to hitmen currently on missions. It’s a fascinating and creative concept that John Wick plays around with quite a bit, from establishing the rule that no business can be done on the hotel property to the creation of a special type of coin that the hitmen use as common currency around each other. It’s all really interesting stuff that gets just enough (but not too much) explanation within the world of the film itself. Following John Wick, I would love to see more films that took place in this hitman underworld, John Wick involved or no (Editor’s Note from the future: And we did!)

At the end of the day, the worst thing I can say about John Wick is that it’s not the most revolutionary action film ever made. It sticks to its guns (quite literally) with the ideal that well choreographed and fun to watch action can win the day, and it’s mostly right with that assertion. John Wick doesn’t invent the wheel as far as action films are concerned, but uses said wheel to take the audience on quite the spectacular action movie ride. John Wick is the kind of crazy one badass vs. the world action film they don’t quite make the same anymore, but the film presents a very strong argument on why that ought not be the case.

The sequel to John Wick, John Wick: Chapter Two, is out in theaters right now. And, if you can believe it, it’s actually better than the first. Stay tuned for my thoughts on that one in the next week.

Originally published at www.geekbinge.com on October 29, 2014.