“They used to call him the boogeyman.”
“The boogeyman? He’s supposed to be the boogeyman?”
“No. He’s who you called to kill the boogeyman.”
Thus we get introduced to the legend of John Wick, established just shortly after seeing three tragic events happen to what appears to be just a normal, mortal man, and an opening shot of him crashing his car and bleeding out on an anonymous street corner. And with that we are drawn into a densely imagined criminal underworld populated with rogues and villains, friends, foes, and where everything that isn’t business is intensely personal.
To say that this is one of Keanu Reeves’ best movies in years is an understatement of epic proportions. At least three places in this film he emotes so heavily you forget that Reeves is the master of emotionless deadpan. The action sequences are fresh and crisp, the supporting characters fill their roles well, and the setup is so powerful, the audience is gut-wrenched into wanting to support this very, very bad man doing very, very bad things.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. To me it seemed like Reeves’ personal Unforgiven – a movie that took Clint Eastwood from Hollywood gunslinger to Hollywood legend and Oscar winner. In that film, Eastwood plays a man still inwardly grieving the loss of his wife while trying to avoid the life of violence he left behind for her. His tale of redemption is a failure, though, and in his wake all he leaves is an aftermath of violence and regret. John Wick reaches for this same star, but doesn’t quite reach it. Here are the four reason why I think it missed the mark.
It’s Too Much Like Unforgiven
As I just mentioned, unfortunately for me, because now I’m going to have to write something more about a bullet point I’ve already spoiled, this move reminded me very much of Unforgiven. Former killer who escaped his violent past experiences great personal tragedy, and gets sucked back in, for the wrong reasons, experiencing (and dealing out) more personal tragedy along the way. It’s a tried and true meme for Hollywood, and we’ve seen several action films, dramas, and thrillers with this setup in the recent past.
Just because John Wick does it better than any film since Unforgiven doesn’t take away from the fact that Unforgiven already got an Oscar for this story. The Academy isn’t likely to give their awards to films — even great ones — that follow the same path laid out by previous winners. If anything, they like to pretend that they reward creativity and genuine originality, even while promoting and managing the most derivative film industry on earth.
In Unforgiven, the kid tells William Munny, “I guess he had it coming,” after experiencing his first gunfight and murder. Without even a pause, Munny replies, “We’ve all got it coming.” John Wick seizes on this too hard. Each person Wick meets on his path of vengeance reminds him about the consequences of coming back into the fold after leaving it. It’s a constant reminder that a life lived in violence is bound to end in violence. “You and I are cursed,” the antagonist tells Wick. “On this, we agree,” Wick says in return.
It’s Too Much Like Constantine
The last time I wrote the words “Keanu Reeves’ best movie in years” it was almost 10 years ago for Constantine. The problem with that, is John Wick borrows heavily from that movie, too. We have the solo protagonist who has dedicated his life to a special form of killing. He’s quite good at it. So good, in fact, the devil himself would come from hell to collect his soul when he died, just to gloat at finally beating the son of a bitch. That’s John Constantine’s legend amongst the demons and angels his world is populated with. John Wick’s own mythology is just as elaborate, and when he learns his son has made an enemy of Wick, our primary antagonist begins drinking and smoking heavily, and becomes prone to bouts of hysteria. He’s facing his own personal angel of death. The two are epic bad-asses in their worlds. The similarities are too strong.
And their worlds are too similar. Midnight’s club in Constantine, where angels and demons can intermingle, and a pact of neutrality prevents anyone from taking a side while in the bar is in place at the Continental, a Switzerland of hitmen, where the rules of neutrality are so strong, even talking about business is forbidden.
Wicks friends are killed just to slow him down, in the same way as Constantine’s. Sure, these are easy motifs of the action genre, but it links these two films together, and diminish the originality of the newer, better one.
It Has Too Much Speed
The world-building here is stunning in a way. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad builds an immense, gloriously imagined underworld for Wick and his enemies to play in, but don’t give us any time to appreciate it. The film moves too fast, especially at the beginning, and by the second act climax things are moving so fast you start to wish you hadn’t ordered the Muto-sized Diet Coke at the concession stand, because if you leave now, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss someone getting their ass kicked hard.
You get the feeling that the director was unsure about how to handle quiet moments. Great films always have them: scenes where it seems like nothing is happening, but in truth, the actor is changing. The situation is changing. The stakes are changing. Paradigm shifts, contrary to the Dilbert cartoon purporting otherwise, often happen in silence; and John Wick doesn’t give us enough of them to appreciate how fast the film does move once the pot is on boil.
Five more minutes with Daisy, the funeral, and Willem Dafoe at the beginning would have not only better established these characters’ connections, but also their strength. Five minutes of quiet time near the midpoint — like John McClane pulling glass out of his feet and talking to Sergeant Powell in Die Hard — would have added depth and subtlety to a film desperate for it.
Its Set in the Matrix
I don’t know if this should bother me — well scratch this. I know it didn’t bother me; I loved it — but I think the combination of the elaborate world-building side-by-side with how well everyone in this film knew each other became a detriment to the drama. Every single person John Wick met, except for the antagonist’s son and cronies, he knew. He knew the antagonist, he knew everyone at the Continental, including most of the guests. He spoke perfect Russian and knew the doorman at the secret Russian club, the hot bartender at the Continental’s club, the owner of the Continental, everyone. He knew the head of the Russian mob, and everyone in the mob, again — except his son — knew him. The body disposal guys knew him. The Continental hotel clerk knew him. The local police officer on the “outside” knew him, knew what he did and was apparently ok with it.
This is simply not consistent with reality. In my experience, and in every great film, there is an element of the unknown. There are surprises. There are twists. Things happen that you simply can’t prepare for, and John Wick suffers from the same malaise that infects action films today: the protagonist is simply the greatest killing machine that has ever lived. That’s the Matrix. That’s not earth.
Liam Neeson in Taken is an unstoppable killing machine. Stallone in the newest Rambo (and all of the Expendables films) is an unstoppable killing machine. For all it has going for it, at the end of the day, John Wick is just another generic, unstoppable killing machine. That’s all the Matrix films ended up being. Agent Smith and Neo punching each other for two hours while the rest of the cast wandered around pretending they mattered.
What made Die Hard an amazing film, and the greatest action film of my generation (better than all of its sequels, combined) is the fact that John McClane wasn’t an unstoppable killing machine. He was, in fact, very stoppable, and survived his experience in the Nakatomi building almost more through luck than raw skill and superior training. It gave the film a sense of real danger. It made the protagonist accessible. Today’s action films are like gun porn. Lots of plastic jiggling around, bodily fluids ejaculating all over the place, and people breathing heavily and bumping into each other over and over and over again until someone cries out and it’s over.
I think if John Wick had managed to avoid that, it could have been a generational favorite, and an action film classic. As it is, it’s still pretty damn good. 4.5 Glocks out of 5.