John Wick is a really good terrible movie. Which is harder than people think.
To understand what’s been done here, you have to go back to a different movie; Run All Night. Both feature a hit man who’s fed up and living in a slump. Both feature that same hit man being messed about by his former boss’s kid, and having to kill pretty much the entire criminal population of a big city. And both are about awful people killing each other. But John Wick is a satisfying action movie where Run All Night was an action movie without the sense to realise it should have been a claustrophobic noir drama.
What makes the difference? Well, you’ve got to know when to use an actor. Keanu Reeve isn’t an actor, exactly, but if you surround him with actors, you can get some fun stuff. John Wick is full of ringers. Ian McShane has a cameo. Lance Reddick has a cameo. Willem Dafoe is there. It just goes on and on. But the moment that makes the point about acting comes very early; Michael Nyquist rings a henchman to find out just why that henchman has punched out his eminently punchable son. “Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” “Oh” says Nyquist, and in that one syllable we know everything that’s going to happen next; how deadly John Wick is, and how disappointing Nyqvist’s son has always been.
In the role of eminently punchable son, Alfie Allen shows up as pre-op Theon Greyjoy, and actually out-Theons himself. At this point, Alfie Allen’s best shot for ever playing anything but arseholes probably rests on plastic surgery and perhaps emigrating to a planet which doesn’t have HBO, so I suppose he might as well leave on the horrible wispy beard and embrace his destiny.
John Wick plays out in a weirdly heightened reality in which high level crime has its own hotel-cum-UN, and everything of importance is paid for with Oreo-sized gold coins. It’s like a colourised Sin City in which the entire cast has decided to play just straight enough to make it all believable instead of transparently ridiculous, and these are all, in case I’m not being clear, good things. Action films are essentially idiotic, and there’s a trick to pitching the world just idiotic enough that the action seems organic to the reality. John Wick's world is just enough over the top that John Wick’s impressive set of skills seem credible instead of cartoonish. Making that work is mostly down to the playing; MacShane, Nyquist, Reddick, Allen and everyone else are quietly selling the world with every understated line.
So the action works. The centrepiece is John Wick chasing his quarry through the Red Circle night club, an extended shoot-em-and-beat-em-up which runs like someone saw the hammer fights in Raid 2 and Oldboy and thought it would be more fun to do them with guns and three floors full of targets. They were right, and even more amazingly, they pulled it off.
The movie is allegedly going to be a franchise trilogy; given that John Wick kills pretty much everyone else, I can’t wait to see what’s left for him to kill next time.