For all John Wick’s bad-to-the-bone street cred, the most surprising, and rewarding, fact of the film is that it is essentially a character study. It just happens to study a man who knows only action and killing, a la Le Samourai and Point Blank. All other concerns are ephemeral. Wick is spare, stripped, and rivetingly efficient, and the entire last half of the film is wall-to-wall action, leaving little room for “traditional” character development. But in John Wick it is precisely that beaten-and-battered resistance to emotion that drives John Wick (Keanu Reeves). He’s a tragic figure, but not one who’s tragedy is expressed through emoting. Rather, it is expressed through his not emoting, and his essential inability to understand life outside of his single-minded pursuit of vengeance, a vengeance pushing him toward death even as it is the only thing keeping him alive and vigorous. He’s a cold man, and his film brings an icy chill. The effect is crippling, brittle, and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The script, and the terse filmmaking, strips the whole story of emotion, never letting us into its world, for Wick can’t truly be a part of ours.
Fittingly, Wick’s tale is brutally simple, and poetic in its inelastic, minimalist form. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is an assassin. His wife dies. She gives him a dog to cope with the pain and feel love once again. Someone kills his dog. John Wick is not happy. He lets the people who killed his dog know it. That’s all there is, for we don’t need to know anymore. And, ultimately, neither does John Wick. The amount that his film is ultimately able to say about this robot man, without ever once having to actually come out and “say” anything or stop for a “character moment”, is a marvel of ingenuity and minimalist storytelling. Here, action and character are one.
Of course, if you aren’t interested in moment-to-moment character studies, there’s always the simple fact that John Wick is a somewhat stunning action film to tide you over. The narrative simplicity leaves room for fully-formed, expressive set-pieces filled with little details (for, if Wick wouldn’t notice the little details in the environments around him while walking about, he undoubtedly would while fighting). Yet first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski don’t film them like they want to bowl us over the head with grandeur – they give them room to breath, setting them up in gratifying long takes with cuts that are that much more pinpoint and feeling for their relative absence. They work as a sort of chaotic poetry, playing out like human bodies in angular motion with each other. One sequence in particular, set in a club a-lit with blues, reds, and purples, is downright mesmerizing, and possibly the best-filmed sequence of 2014.
Elsewhere, Wick owes quite a significant debt to the pummeling straightforwardness of clinical 70’s “men on the edge of society” films so satisfying in their day, not to mention the French works of Melville that preceded them. It’s complete lack of emotion allows it to focus on process, giving it an unexpectedly frayed intellectualism that feels almost like a work out of time, or an impression of an elsewhere fully-formed world. It’s not a “fun” film – there’s too much depression circling Wick like vultures – but it is extremely, almost monumentally, exciting for its own kinetic in-the-moment energy. It is not style instead of substance, but style-as-substance, exciting in the way a ballet of blood might be. Everything is precise and deeply impactful, given weight and realism even as it is abstracted almost to the level of performative dance.
And all of this without even mentioning, except in passing, the film’s punching bag: Keanu Reeves. A punchline in recent years (although not quite to Nicolas Cage levels of feverish delirium), Reeves is not an actor of great talent. He has been, however, an actor occasionally exceedingly able to realize this and find roles inordinately well suited to his non-presence as an actor. And the role of a man sleepwalking through life, resolutely non-expressive and completely committed to his own forward momentum because he no longer has a soul and revenge is the only thing he knows how to do well, is absolutely one of these roles. It’s as if the surfer dude woke up and realized his life was meaningless, spent every day re-realizing this fact with a face of stone, and had to kill to hide this fact from himself. He is a singularly implacable figure, and in the best sense of any character study, the implacable filmmaking follows suit.