Action films are all about momentum. All the best action films, from classics like Die Hard to more modern films like Dredd rely on a strong sense of direction and a plot created by cause and effect in order to ensure that the audience is as wrapped up in the film as the characters are. There's a reason why action films set over a short period of time always seem to work best - it's because the film never loses that momentum.
John Wick is a film that understands that. We follow ex-hitman John Wick as he fights his way through various members of the underground world that he used to inhabit in order to kill a man who stole his car and killed his dog, the son of his previous employer.
As far as the plot goes, that's pretty much it. John Wick is a revenge film first and foremost, but in it's defence, a smart one - our main character isn't taking vengeance on the boy for the loss of his dog and car so much as he is lashing out at the world after the loss of his wife, a temper tantrum caused by his inability to grieve whose body count numbers in the dozens. This focus on character is one of the many small things that make John Wick more than just another action film - it has some real substance just below the surface.
Additionally, the simple plot allows John Wick to retain the aforementioned sense of momentum that all great action movies need. From the moment John picks up his gun, he's thrown straight into some incredibly well choreographed and filmed action scenes that are never simply there to break up the story - instead, the action scenes are the story, and John Wick flows in and out of them as easily as our main character does.
It's probably worth noting just how good John Wick looks. You could be forgiven for thinking that you are watching a particularly meticulously shot arthouse film at times - it's potentially one of the best looking action films I've seen, lights and colours popping out of the screen and contrasting heavily with the darkness surrounding them. This is best exemplified by the nightclub action scene, potentially the highlight of film, which feels like as close as we will ever get to a Hotline Miami movie.
Keanu Reeves is great in the
lead role, the actors history as an action star before falling out of
the limelight syncing really well with the back story of John, a form of
shorthand for characterisation that feels as if it is close to breaking
the fourth wall. For a film of this size, the casting is excellent, with recognisable names such as Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Adrianne Palicki all making their mark on the film as unique and interesting characters.
The main problem with John Wick is that our central character is almost too good. We know from the start that John was the best at what he did when he still worked as a hitman (part of the charm of the first act is seeing the various characters react to the news that they've got a pissed off John Wick on the way), but the result of this is that John is never in any real danger thanks to the films unwillingness to allow him to come across anyone that could be considered a real threat, and because of that the stakes never seem high enough. There is no sense of escalation, nothing for our hero to really have to overcome, and that impacts John Wick in a way that I don't think could have been predicted.
It's a minor issue, but one that ultimately stops John Wick from being as good as it could have been, which is a real shame because it's pretty fantastic in every other way. The highlight of the film for me was the amount of imagination that went into the criminal underworld - there's honour amongst thieves in John Wick, a culture for criminals that has resulted in an exclusive hotel called the Continental just for the underworld being set up, one with it's own strict rules and a secret currency. It's a great exercise in world building, and another small detail that again sets John Wick apart from the rest.
I wish John Wick had been just 10 or 15 minutes longer in order to further explore this very rich world that it has created. I wanted to see more of Ms Perkins and Marcus and the Continental, but the film doesn't quite have the time (or more likely, the budget) to really get it's teeth stuck into the fantastic little world that it takes place in. Regardless, it's a must see for anyone who loves action films, a visually stunning and well paced trip through a wonderful world that will no doubt achieve cult classic status before long.