I reviewed John Wick back when it was released in 2014 and gave it a positive review. Several years on, my love for it has only grown.
John Wick is peppered with better implemented world building than most contemporary franchises, executed as precisely and efficiently as John Wick executes head-shots. It’s added flavor, both unique and essential to the stylings of this assassin underworld. Visually, while not only appealing with uses of color and production design, the world of Wick is coordinated with a thorough code. Characters discuss a secret assassin world on the fringes of society, implementations in aesthetics bolster the feel of its heightened reality.
The storytelling feels intimate and mythic, unlike any other modern action film except perhaps Mad Max: Fury Road (a masterpiece in its own right). John Wick‘s neon coded visuals representing his descent into the criminal underworld, a far cry from the introduction of soft golden hues as we witness images of intimacy between John and his late-wife; small glimpses of a better world than the one we will spend time in. The Underworld is bathed in reds, blues, greens and sterile white. John’s grim reaper black suit sifting through the environment without regard for it, though it’s never looked more fitting.
John’s black funeral attire carries a weight of sadness but damn if he doesn’t look good in it. And that’s exactly the problem. John’s at home in the black suit. Whether he’s doling it out for business contracts or dealing with the passing of a loved one, the connection to death is a life John is more than familiar with. It’s where he’s most comfortable.
The titular character walks from scene to scene, eliciting responses of excitement from the audience as much as wariness of a supporting cast characters. Yet the guiding factor (and defining difference) with John Wick is his drive. Action movies drenched in machismo often rely on the pain of someone dear to him by a villain. Then we get an excuse for a man to go and murder a bunch of people in the name of revenge. Alfie Allen’s villain plays like a modern take on Theon Greyjoy without the deeper conscience. He’s heartless scum whose fate is decided for him the moment he killed the last bastion of John’s possible normalcy. There’s a quality to this specific angst that is more than superficial excuses to feel comfortable with mass murder.
Wick has elements of a classic revenge tale but it’s not entirely committed to John Wick being the most glorious badass ever. Nearly every character asks if John is returning to the assassin fold with several warning him to stray away. There’s an air of melancholy as John dispatches countless henchmen as he strays further from the new world he had cultivated for himself alongside his wife. So while his wife isn’t taken from him because of the life he lived, a careless byproduct of the past ends up killing what he views as a connection to peace and happiness. It’s a new approach to similar ideas of the “vulnerable action hero.” After wiping the floor with the first dozen or so hitmen that raid John’s house, it’s obvious he’s more proficient in killing than blue-collar heroes like John McClane. His vulnerability stems from his emotions.
There are various instances where John’s life is in jeopardy, but his emotional journey is what propels us through the visceral action sequences. You can have similar beats of an action hero taking on an entire crime syndicate without the emotional vulnerability but you see endless amounts of those in January and February already. There’s a legitimate pathos to the character mined in the action sequences and capitalized on idyllic vignettes of John’s worldview. Not that every movie needs to have an emotional connection based in character to be considered worthwhile, but the marriage of technical proficiency in the action builds personal touches that is practically unparalleled.
Another great action filmmaker, the late-great Tony Scott, made radically different action films with similar testaments to his cinematic worlds. Back on the outstanding film Man on Fire, Scott said “If Denzel feels it, thinks it, I’ll communicate it. Under no rules.” Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch take that same approach to a world hiding just in the shadows of our own.
A final shot shows John walking across the same boardwalk where his wife fell ill. He now walks home with a new dog to accompany him and a revised sense of contentment away from his dark past once again. It’s a serene final moment earned gracefully, and executed romantically. He’s lost the life he had. An optimistic ending, sure, but all John has left is a boundless search for the small connections to a life he never felt he deserved.