Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
As John Wick, the titular assassin of the 2014 action film, Keanu Reeves has a grave physicality. He moves like he has weights in his shoes, and his face, always beautiful, has a hardness, like it’s been chiseled from crystal. (In a sense, Reeves’ mien is the character.) Reeves has always been a physical actor, less a deliverer of lines and more of a dancer, serene and gracefully there. Presumably it’s this quality that encouraged Bertolucci to cast him as Siddhartha: he recognized the calmness underlying the surfer-dude persona.
In first-time director Chad Stahelski, Reeves has found another filmmaker who understands him. A martial artist and longtime stunt guru, Stahelski doubled Reeves in the 1999 “The Matrix,” and, like the Wachowskis, he approaches action in the Hong Kong manner, treating it as a kind of ballet. The kung-fu set pieces are shot full-body, the camera held steady to emphasize the coordinated movements — the calligraphy of arms and legs — that makes this kind of thing worth looking at.
Stahelski and his team may have approached “John Wick” with reformative intent: contrary to prevailing trends, the action is quicksilvery rather than bruising (sometimes it’s too quicksilvery — nothing has much weight), and Jonathan Sela’s precise cinematography is blissfully free of shakiness. It’s possible to enjoy “John Wick” for its look and design alone. The lighting and color grading have been carefully tied into the picture’s moods (Nicolas Winding Refn may have been an inspiration), and the art direction, by Dan Leigh, is always creeping into the fringes of your consciousness. (“Hey,” I kept thinking, “where can I get a lamp like that?”) All of this helps to cement the impression of a fantasy, neon-dipped Manhattan, one as eerily devoid of normal human occupation as Feuillade’s Paris.
Where the movie goes wrong, I think, is its screenplay, which complicates the plot’s through-line in a way that betrays the vivifying simplicity of the hardboiled premise. Writer Derek Kolstad has a decent idea — to combine the dice-hard cool of Hodges and Melville with comic-book flair and exaggeration. But he can’t prevent the narrative from going limp when, about halfway into the picture, Wick locates the man who killed his dog — the act that set this rudimentary revenge story into motion. From that point on you can sense Kolstad sweating as he throws new elements into the plot, trying desperately to keep the movie going. A female assassin character feels like one of the picture’s few concessions to trendiness (predictably, she gives Wick more trouble than his male foes); Willem Dafoe blips into and out of the movie in a way that’s more frustrating than surprising; and there’s a dreadful scene in which Wick ragingly explains his motivations, as if to remind us that, yes, there’s a point to all of this. (Did the filmmakers really think we’d forget that the bad guys killed his pooch, or fail to realize what that meant to him?) By the time the screenplay has Dafoe get tortured in order to provide Wick with a second layer of motivation (and the movie with a second big ending), my interest level had flat-lined. It was about as dead as John Wick’s dog.
You know your action film and your take on the direction and Reeves is spot on. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the script — I liked the sort of noir-fantasy elements that Kolstad cobbled together (e.g. the gold coins, the “honor among thieves conceit” etc.) and thought the action was enough to propel the plot along. You were right about the female assassin though — enough of those characters already.
I’ve heard Stahelski is already working on a sequel which I very much look forward to.