Set It Off

I’m a redditor and a very constant one. So, upon witnessing the hype for John Wick in the weeks of it coming up, despite not hearing about it until those weeks before the movie opened, I figured I’d see what r/movies was talking about and go ahead and check out what the fuss is all about.

I didn’t watch any trailer beforehand and all I knew about it was that it was being directed and written by a pair of stuntmen who had worked with star Keanu Reeves in the Matrix trilogy and that it followed a man who was one-track minded on revenge after the callous murder of his dog. It pretty much sounded like a Liam Neeson adaptation of what happened to Marcus Luttrell after his Lone Survivor incident. No, seriously, Luttrell’s dog even had the same name of Daisy (except spelled “DASY”).

I had absolutely no expectations for the film except that it might be a pretty good action film.

Well, turns out it WAS a pretty good action film, if it was nothing else.

Well, also turns out it was also SOMETHING ELSE. Not much of something else, but certainly enough to note how it expands beyond being a layman action film at least, even if it inherently borrows itself from the style of another better action film that was released this same year.

Basically the eponymous character (Reeves) has almost immediately after the film has started lost his wife to a terminal disease (Wikipedia states that the wife was played by Bridget Moynahan, but I totally never even bothered recognizing the actress she was on-screen for such a short while). Upon her eve of her death, she arranged for John to receive a puppy to help him move on from her passing and it doesn’t exactly work a miracle on him, but it keeps John level-headed. Suddenly a trio of Russian thugs – led by Iosef (Alfie Allen) – break and enter John Wick’s home with the intention of stealing his car after refusing to sell it to them. In the middle of their assault, they murder Daisy in cold blood, inciting John to begin grieving and arranging a proper burial for his poor dog while Iosef and his pals begin to congratulate themselves for their actions. They make the mistake of bringing the car to a chop shop owned by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and the shitstorm Aurelio erupts in is the first sign that Iosef just killed the wrong man’s dog.

Immediately after John finishes grieving for Daisy, he starts prepping for a remake of Sterling Archer’s classic film Terms of Enrampagement and is going for much more than Iosef himself. Iosef turns out to be the son of local crimelord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who John Wick used to work for. As an assassin. The kind that killed every single bit of competition Tarasov had to get to the position he is now in. And now the previously retired John is going after the entire Tarasov organization.

These are all facts that are introduced within the first ten minutes of the film setting up the hype for what Wick can do much like reddit had to set up the hype for what John Wick would have been like. Brief scenes of establishing conversation between two people like the gossip that spreads all around close friends, cross-cut with moments of slamming sledgehammers sounding off the beats and momentum of the scene where Viggo explains just what kind of hellfire is coming for him, thanks to the drummer-like editing of Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, knowing just when to speed up and when to slow it down, setting up the tempo for each scene accordingly.

And then the first gunfight scene begins.

A group of Viggo’s hitmen take a siege to Wick’s home and Wick dispatches them in a teasing little sequence using the closed spaces around Wick and the hit team to provide a snapping, exciting dance of fists, feet, bodies, and bullets in brilliant long-takes, with flashy choreography for a gun battle, aware cinematography to set up the environment, and of course, that tempo-ed editing again this time never missing the beat or what’s up with the shot.

Then the movie gets really exciting.

For one, while Wick goes on his rampage, it turns out he’s sort of one in a great big network of hitmen all around the city with their own construct of communities and rules and ethics. It’s nothing too mythic, it’s just organized, and in fact most of the details of this network are completely turned away from the audience in the most frustratingly abstract way. But it’s there and it’s cool and I really hope we don’t need a sequel that tries to expand on this because it won’t live up to how vast it is in my mind. We’ve already got enough bit part roles in the movie as it is made up of familiar faces (none of them I’ll divulge, just because I had no idea who was in the movie besides Reeves going in and if anybody wants to approach the movie that way, by all means), all probably supposed to do the same thing Reeves does of adding presence to the characters without feeling like a need to really force out some dimension to each character. They’re just co-workers, acquaintances, that Wick knows and that we know too. It’s pretty impressive to show such restraint in filling up a world that the characters live in and then still leaving it with this feeling of being such a real environment.

And then there is the piece de resistance for the action extravaganza… The nightclub setpiece where John goes floor by floor duking it out and shooting it out and going after Iosef with a one track mind from the basements to the balcony and so on. As I mentioned, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have been stuntmen. So they know exactly how to make stunts and choreography get done as stuntmen, but I did not at all expect them to be able to capture such an ambitious and fluid setpiece so fantastically. The editing punching in and out moment after moment while the annoying techno music just keeps pumping up mechanically to every shot fired, every hit John takes and dishes, and the cinematography just forcing involvement for the audience every single step that John takes into the hot blues and reds that surround these fighters (the cinematographer Jonathan Sela is quite the revelation in the whole movie – the previous sledgehammer hype up I mentioned has such a vast contrast between the cool steel grays of John’s basement and the warm browns of Viggo’s penthouse). It was so boisterously climactic that I expected the movie to be taking place entirely during this shootout.

I won’t go explicitly into the movie’s content any further, but it doesn’t. It avoids that. Which is a shame because from there on forth the movie feels like it has already shot its load and the rest of the film still has some impressive action setpieces and still feels very alive as a world, but it never lives up to its first half. We still have enough story to carry us on, though, and once a movie like John Wick has given us enough momentum to make us want to keep digging into it, it barely has to do anything more than just tell a half-decent story by Derek Kolstad and have the acting done well enough without hamming itself up – which is a mile of a good thing for Nyqvist and Reeves to do, since they are both actors I am hardly ever impressed by.

But what is my favorite thing about John Wick beyond all these other things I love it for: It is pretty much among the cleanest action movie I have seen in a long time, even more than The Raid 2 which is certainly the best action movie of the year so far. See, the world John lives in is certainly depressing and the movie does enough to express that depression in its visual language, a nihilistic fadedness that I feel is almost certainly done in post-production rather than filtering. But it’s not grungy or gritty… it’s very lavish, it’s almost looking like luxury and would trick you into feeling that if Reeves wasn’t just always so sobering, so visually lost in his role as a human being. It would be a James Bond film if Reeves didn’t give John Wick the character it has as a film (and I would never say Keanu Reeves gives a movie something if he didn’t). It’s not brutal or banging, but it’s still very very intense as an action film. It’s sleek. But it’s still affrontive.

And there’s something especially psychologically off about that sleekness. Like everything is as it should be exactly, except all the violence proves that to be wrong and Wick is still missing a wife and a puppy. But by god, is it all very affrontively elegant in the end.

I’m very very envious. I haven’t seen a film capable of holding all of these dissonant parts together since Rian Johnson’s Brick but John Wick pretty much is guilty as charged of pulling this. Leitch and Stahelski pull it off and tap into a storytelling style of visual psychology without even acknowledging it and utilize it in a genre that is usually just dismissed as bargain bin cheap thrills. Holy shit, John Wick is not even close to that way at all and I’m glad for it and I suggest anybody who likes comic books should watch it, because John Wick feels like one giant limited series from Vertigo Comics. Like 100 Bullets.

Wow, I should go to movies having absolutely no idea what they are about more often.

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