Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Film Review - 'John Wick'

Film plots that boil down to little more than elaborate revenge fantasies are so common that they may as well be their own genre. Families could be killed. Daughters could be kidnapped. There's all sorts of things that could drive a person already suitably unhinged into setting off on a violent, revenge-fuelled, murder-spree. Though, I have to admit, I don't think I've ever seen one inspired by the death of a dog, before. But, that's exactly the set-up that we are given in John Wick.

John Wick is a dangerous man. The sort of man that even the most violent criminals fear - assuming that they have the common sense to be afraid, of course. At one point, John Wick was the most dangerous hit-man in the business. But, then, he decided that he wanted to quit. John Wick had fallen in love, it seems - and, for the past few years, he has been retired, happily married, and content with the life that he had built for himself.

But, of course, this wasn't going to last. As the film opens, we are treated to a montage of a woman slowly being killed by cancer - and, of a husband powerless to do anything to stop it. It's a surprisingly effective opening, even if it does amount to little more than a quick summery only meant to set the scene for the action to follow. It creates a strong enough sense of emotional connection between the audience and John Wick that, by the time he finds himself in possession of an adorable puppy, the film-makers had done a good enough job setting it all up that it would quickly become so important to him.

Similarly, by the time that John Wick has his chance encounter with the son of a Russian crime-lord, resulting in him being severely beaten, his car being stolen, and his dog being killed, I was fully on board with the idea that this was all going to end in even more violence. This isn't the tale of an ordinary man, after all. Other actors might have struggled to sell the film's premise to the audience, but Keanu Reeves manages to pull it off.

It's actually quite impressive to see exactly how straight they're playing what is, essentially, a fairly silly premise. Yes, this violent rampage was triggered by the death of a dog - but, it's made pretty clear that this isn't just about the dog. The dog was his wife's last gift to him - it was something that was supposed to help him grieve. It was also the last connection he felt that he had to a woman he loved - and, the life that he had built with her. If you take something like that away from a violent and dangerous many like John Wick, then of course the results are likely to be bloody.

"They killed his dog, and now he's out for revenge" sounds like it could have easily been the basis for some sort of bizarre parody - and, if it were, then that film could have still been very entertaining. But, it's also great to see the film-makers work to give us something a little deeper than that. Don't get me wrong, here - John Wick is still every bit the gloriously absurd display of over-the-top violence it seems to be. It's just that they've also managed to add a bit of genuine heart to the whole thing.

And, if none of that interests you, then there is still the film's generous selection of fantastic action sequences. There's also some genuinely entertaining moments of black comedy to break up the overall grim and serious tone of the film. Also, there's the film's fascinating take on the criminal underworld - with features that include a very discreet body removal business, and a high-class hotel which caters to providing a safe haven for suitably wealthy criminals. Even if you can't quite bring yourself to accept the film's basic premise, there is still a lot to enjoy in John Wick.

Keanu Reeves is someone who I have always liked. Sure, you can comment on his limited range, as an actor, and how drastically wrong he was for some of the roles he has taken in the past - but, offer him the right part, and he is typically pretty great. And, John Wick is exactly the right sort of role for him. Whether it's the sombre and serious tone of the man, himself, or his genuinely intimidate presence during his action scenes, Keanu Reeves is actually pretty much perfect for this role.

Alfie Allen's entire purpose in the film is to be unlikable - and, as such, there really isn't very much to the role he was given. Iosef Tarasov is little more than an arrogant thug in his first appearance, and he isn't much more than that in his last. At the same time, though, it's hard not to feel at least a little bad for him. Even when he and his friends managed to catch John Wick by surprise in his own home, Iosaf didn't strike me as any sort of legitimate threat - at least, not to a man like John Wick. And, his angry boasting that he isn't afraid is almost comical. False bravado masking escalating fear is really what this character is all about - and, Alfie Allen does a good job portraying it. Sure, if you're paying close attention, you might notice that his accent seems to be a bit all over the place - but, it wasn't noticeable enough, to me, that it spoiled his performance.

The real threat is Viggo Tarasov (played by Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist), a man caught up in a conflict that he clearly doesn't want, but who still feels compelled to throw all of the resources at his disposal at John Wick in order to protect his son. Which, of course, just makes an already dangerous situation so much worse. Not only is he much more convincing as the film's designated 'villain' (though, no one here really counts as a good person), his bemused reaction to the escalating chaos is also the source of some of the film's best moments of humour.

The film also boasts an impressive supporting cast, all fully committed to their roles. We have Willem Defoe as a fellow hit-man, and an old friend of John Wick's, and Ian McShane as the owner of the 'Continental' - the hotel where wealthy criminals can find a safe place to rest, and where anyone who breaks the truce is violently dealt with. There's also Adrianne Palicki as an assassin who clearly loves her work. Each serves to add to the film's fascinating underworld, and works to expand the film's cast of strangely likable criminals.

Any issue I have with the film feels like nit-picking, at this point. Sure, it all starts to drag on a bit, toward the end - with the film going out of its way to give us a 'fake-out' ending, before abruptly turning around and dragging us back in for more action. And, also, Adrianne Palicki's role in the film initially seems to be set up as another dangerous adversary for John Wick, but it ultimately never actually goes anywhere. She ends up being brushed aside in an incredibly unsatisfying manner.

Then, of course, there's still the matter of whether or not you can accept the premise that all of this was kick-started by the death of a dog.

But, none of this does much to change the fact that John Wick is a genuinely entertaining action film. Best of all, it is one that clearly leaves things open for a potential sequel in the future - which, based on this first offering, is something that I would genuinely love to see.

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