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Film Review: John Wick

John Wick (2014; Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)

In pure action movie terms, John Wick is an artful, stylish masterwork. Starring Keanu Reeves (an underrated but long-tenured movieland action hero) as a former skilled hitman pushed out of retirement by a painful personal loss, its copious shootouts, fights, and slayings are choereographed and shot with balletic grace and visceral impact by directorial neophytes Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, whom Reeves worked with as stuntmen and action coordinators on The Matrix and brought into the project. Stahelski and Leitch (the latter co-directed but went uncredited) utilize spaghetti western tropes of the solitary, plain-spoken gunslinger (fine fodder for the famously po-faced monotonic delivery of Reeves) while blending in the dancer’s grace of John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks and the stylistic lighting and cinematography of modern South Korean noirs. The result is a memorable, slick potboiler with practical artistic chops.

But John Wick is also a curious case study in the cinematic valences of compelling audience empathy. Before we ever learn that John Wick is a (retired) badass master assassin who can wipe out an entire room of baddies with elegant confidence, we are primed with the revenge-driven action-movie equivalent of the affecting opening sequence of Pixar’s Up! John Wick is shown loving, burying, and wordlessly grieving his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who expired after a protracted illness. Wick’s mournful solitude is touchingly solaced by a posthumously delivered gift to him from Helen: a mega-adorable puppy named Daisy.

Unfortunately, his fast bonding process with his new companion is brutally snapped by a trio of Russian gangland thugs, led by the callous young Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). Covetous of his vintage car, they invade his home, beat him up, take his car keys, and kill his dog. The silent scenes of Reeves cradling the tiny creature’s body and burying it in a box are heartbreaking, for animal-lovers and general emotional beings alike.

With this comforting animal outlet for his grief cruelly torn from him, John Wick replies quite reasonably, under the circumstances: he proceeds to kill dozens upon dozens of people, with Iosef and eventually the youth’s crimelord father, Wick’s admiring former contract employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the central focal points of his vengeful wrath. Along the way, Wick must contend with not only wave after wave of Viggo’s thugs, but also fellow professional underworld assassins (Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe play two such figures) who are after the Russian gangster’s $2 million bounty on his head.

John Wick deftly uses the manipulative language of cinema to make this response seem proportionate, but even someone who loves dogs and deplores wanton cruelty to animals has to admit that the suggestion of just equivalence is absurd. One hesitates to dwell on the ridiculous relativism of the movie’s conceit, seeing as comedy team Key & Peele have already made an entire film semi-parodying it (2016’s Keanu). But it remains more than a little troubling, in general decontextualized moral terms, that we as viewers are asked (and mostly oblige) to feel more deeply for the lost life of a puppy than for the lost lives of 84 people (an exhaustive kill count posted to YouTube tallied up 76 victims, but Stahelski points out 8 more were snuffed out in destroyed SUVs, so that settles that debate).

There isn’t much beneath the surface of John Wick beyond this odd question of empathetic persuasion. It’s a masterfully-crafted slice of frothy Hollywood action cinema, composed and choreographed with enough precision, rough beauty, and bravado to qualify as a borderline work of art (if it were directed by a Frenchman rather than Yank stuntmen, it might get a Cannes screening). There’s a hefty hint of world-building ambition here, in the form of a secret hotel for a gold-coin-earning secret society of contract killers of which Wick was once a part (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both show up as minders of this assassins’ safe space, known as the Continental). Perhaps that underworld will be delved into more deeply in John Wick‘s two sequels, one of which was released this year and the other now in production.

Or perhaps Keanu Reeves’ Wick will simply kill many, many more people (fictional people pre-constructed as essentially bad, but still), awesomely. There’s some entertainment value to both options, but whether either movie leads us to fundamentally question the inherent moral and emotional assumptions of blockbuster cinema as John Wick (inadvertently) does remains to be seen.

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