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John Wick

D: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch / 101m

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Omer Barnea, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan

Having lost his wife, Helen (Moynahan), to an unexpected illness, retired assassin John Wick (Reeves) receives a posthumous gift from her: a puppy called Daisy. They begin to bond, and Wick takes her with him when he travels anywhere. At a gas station one day, Wick encounters a trio of Russian gang members; their leader, Iosef (Allen) asks to buy his car but Wick rebuffs him. Later that night, the trio break into Wick’s home, beat him up, kill Daisy, and make off with his car. While he recovers, Iosef takes the car to a chop shop run by Aurelio (Leguizamo) but he refuses to have anything to do with Iosef or the car. Wick visits Aurelio and learns that Iosef is the son of his former boss, Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist). When Viggo finds out what his son has done, he’s less than happy; he tells Iosef that Wick was the best hitman in the business, not the boogeyman, but the man you sent to kill the boogeyman.

Viggo attempts to placate Wick but has no luck. He sends a hit squad to kill Wick at his home but Wick despatches them all. Viggo then puts out an open contract for $2 million on Wick, and approaches Marcus (Dafoe), Wick’s mentor, directly; Marcus agrees to take the job. Meanwhile, Wick checks in to the Continental, a hotel run by Winston (McShane) that caters to assassins. Wick learns that Iosef is being protected at a nightclub called Red Circle. He goes there but is stopped from killing Iosef by the intervention of Viggo’s enforcer Kirill (Bernhardt). Wounded, he returns to the hotel where he is attacked by fellow assassin Ms Perkins (Palicki). Overpowering her, he forces her to tell him where Viggo keeps both his private papers and the bulk of his personal cash.

The papers and cash are in a church vault; Wick burns it all. When Viggo arrives, Wick ambushes him and his men, but Kirill uses an SUV to knock Wick unconscious. Taken to an abandoned warehouse and tied up, Viggo remonstrates with Wick over his idea that he could ever lead a normal life. He leaves Wick to be killed by Kirill, but things don’t turn out as he expects.

John Wick - scene

A revenge movie with a distinctive visual style, John Wick is a huge breath of fresh air in a genre that often feels stodgy and underwhelming, and which often relies on rapid cross-cutting and headache-inducing editing tricks to give energy to its action scenes. This definitely isn’t the case here, with directors Stahelski and Leitch’s background as stunt coordinators bringing an impressive edge to the fight sequences, as they bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “gun-fu”.

Even more impressive than the action is the world created by the directors and writer Derek Kolstad. It’s at such a remove from our own world that it seems to operate independently, with its own rules and hierarchies. The Continental is a case in point, an establishment that allows no “business” on its premises, and inflicts the severest of penalties if that rule is ignored. It’s a world where respect and a person’s reputation carry as much caché as money, and where John Wick has the most respect of anyone. It’s also a world that appears bleached of positive feeling, where people hide behind polite, expressionless façades but are quick to display fear, anger and mistrust. And it’s a criminal underworld that mixes old-fashioned codes of conduct with a modern disregard for them when necessary. Against this, Wick acts like an old time vigilante, dismantling Viggo’s business and men with grim determination and no shortage of inner rage. And even though he’s not as invulnerable as he once was, he’s still the ne plus ultra of assassins.

With the world he inhabits so clearly defined, Wick strides through it like a colossus, giving Reeves his most commanding role for years. After non-starters Generation Um… (2012), Man of Tai Chi (2013) and 47 Ronin (2013), it’s good to see Reeves back on form, playing Wick with a taciturn, single-minded demeanour that suits him perfectly as an actor. His brief scenes with Moynahan also show convincingly the other John Wick, the loving husband and all-round “normal” guy. It’s a great performance, and one that’s given more than adequate support by the likes of Nyqvist, Dafoe and Palicki, all relishing their roles and the wonderfully expressive dialogue Kolstad has provided them with. The cast are obviously having a great time with the material, and it’s not surprising that this helps boost the audience’s enjoyment as a result. The interplay between Wick and Viggo is particularly effective, operating on several levels at once, and imparting more emotion than would normally be expected.

As for the action scenes these are tremendously shot and edited, full of fluid tracking shots, and with Reeves in the thick of it all, punching, kicking and blasting away with vicious, yet detached intent, and shooting more people in the head than probably any other hitman in movie history. One extended sequence, at the Red Circle nightclub, is as inventive and as thrilling as any action sequence in recent memory. Using their experience as stunt co-ordinators, Stahelski and Leitch (who thanks to the Directors Guild of America isn’t credited on the movie), keep the fight scenes breathtaking and immersive, and there’s not one moment during any of them where the viewer isn’t fully aware of what’s happening and who’s doing what to whom (something that Taken 3, for example, avoids doing throughout its disheartening running time).

In keeping with the overall mise en scene, the production design by Dan Leigh helps to reinforce the idea of a separate world where all this takes place, and is gloriously lensed by Jonathan Sela. The action is complemented by a pulsing, propulsive score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, and at times feels like it could be another of Wick’s opponents.

Rating: 8/10 – a modern day noir thriller that doesn’t pull its punches and has an emotional core that resonates throughout, John Wick is a wonderful surprise; with not an ounce of fat on it, and one of the tightest scripts of recent years, this is an action movie that constantly surprises and rewards in equal measure.