John Wick (2014)

What started out as a favor to a friend would turn into the next stage of Keanu Reeve’s career as an action star renewed. Constantly bundled up with actors who are told “they cannot emote,” John Wick continues to prove that this is not true, nor is it an impediment. The emotional depth of John Wick as a character is quite sublime, to say the least. His pain, grief, and anguish at the loss of his wife Helen, played briefly by Bridget Moynahan, is evident from the onset. While I am not one for fridge stuffing, at the very least, she wasn’t murdered to further the plot along. That honor belongs to another character, and it was agonizing to have to sit through that. It was a double gut punch to get the story rolling, and from that moment on, John Wick was so bloody it would make Jason Voorhees blush.

At first glance, John Wick appears to be little more than your typical wronged/revenge flick. However, that would be a gross understatement and a terrible mischaracterization of the film. There is a world hiding beneath the surface of our own. To call it a criminal underground would miss the point entirely. A world where crime is not only organized but glamorized – though the sequels that follow would give far more than just a few glimpses into this world, the first did not fail to whet our appetites. With the number of sequels, spin-offs, prequels, and tie-ins that have been announced, there is no shortage of aspects of the world of John Wick that we won’t have explained or clarified.

When it comes to the plot, as was already mentioned – it’s a revenge story. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is wronged not long after the death of his wife Helen. The thing is, John gave up the life he had built within this underground world in order to build a new life with his wife. Helen, proving to be incredibly insightful to what he was going through, and would be going through after she was finally gone, left him one final gift to try and brighten his dark, depressing world. A puppy – and damned if that puppy doesn’t worm its way into his heart before the day is even out. Whatever darkness had threatened to ensnare John is abated by the love and light that his wife’s final gift has given him.

Of course, it’s cruelly snatched away.

Alfie Allen plays Iosef Tarasov, a woefully unprepared yet blatantly arrogant and entitled young man who sees John Wick’s car at the gas station and practically demands that John give it to him. Clearly unused to not getting his way, not to mention being rebuffed in any manner, Iosef decides to take things into his own hands. Well, the hands of his minions – his friend Gregori, played by Omer Barnea, and his bodyguard Victor, played by Toby Leonard Moore – whose initial attacks give Iosef the ability to torment John. Based on his actions throughout the rest of the film, Iosef is not a brave man but a coward. He’s not a smart man, but fatally idiotic. His father, on the other hand, is not an idiot – merely prideful.

Viggo Tarasov, played by Michael Nyqvist, is the head of the Tarasov crime family, is introduced threatening Aurelio (John Leguizamo), who owns the premier chop shop in New York, for slapping his son Iosef. Upon learning why he slapped Iosef, Viggo is appropriately cowed. Viggo is keenly aware of the danger that Iosef has put all of them in – Viggo and his interests because he can’t simply abandon his son, meaning that whatever war comes, Iosef’s way will hit Viggo and his syndicate, too. This is used to reinforce the core theme of the John Wick series as a whole: the cycle of revenge. Somebody has to break it, but the other side has to be willing to accept that the cycle is broken, something that proves difficult when you want revenge after having been wronged. The cycle, as the next films in the series reveal, continues on and on – with no end in sight.

Many try to reduce the conflict to a simple overreaction on John’s part – after all, it was only a dog and a car. Others are quick to point out that, while the car was an insult, the dog was a symbol of Helen’s love after her death. Daisy (his beloved one-day puppy) cannot be reduced in any way, shape, or form because she had value and meaning to John. In a similar vein, although Viggo can understand, his son is equally of value to himself – he can’t just hand Iosef over, even though by doing so he would have ended the cycle. His unwillingness to give even an inch of ground (regardless of the context, mind you) on his son, for Iosef’s own stupidity, arrogance, and entitlement, mind you, results in catastrophic consequences for himself and his organization.

After Viggo’s ill-advised response to John’s request is dealt with, the film begins to paint a picture of the world that they are primarily a part of. We are introduced to the Continental, a hotel that is sacred ground and where work (read, murder) cannot be conducted without severe consequences. We meet several new characters, such as Charon, the concierge, played by Lance Reddick, who is poised and well-informed, his boss Winston, the owner of the continental, played by Ian McShane, and a host of assassins. Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), Marcus (Willem Dafoe), and Harry (Clarke Peters), show various stages of the world – young and wild, mature and refined, wizened and cautious. Dean Winters plays Avi, who is Viggo’s right hand and his lawyer of many years, while Daniel Bernhardt plays Kirill (only named in the credits, mind you), a major enforcer of Viggo’s.

The film is not afraid of blood and makes liberal use of Keanu Reeve’s ability to perform his own stunts (not that there is any issue with an actor not performing their own stunts, mind you). The fight scenes are up close and personal and positively brutal, with whatever forgiveness one might expect tossed out the window for on-screen head shoots and vicious stabbings. In a period where violence can feel desensitized, it was a chilling reminder that it is, in fact, not. It just depends on what that violence is being used for. Here, one is eager to cheer on John Wick’s rampage – it’s fiction, alright? While he might dispatch the nameless minions with little fanfare in your typical action flick, because the camera refuses to cut away, you are left seeing the resultant carnage. For those moments when it wants you to feel something more than your typical popcorn thrill, it carries out the action in another manner. After all, certain characters are not delivered a swift death but a more drawn-out one. If not for their desire to cut John Wick down, you might feel sympathy for them. In reality, they stand in the way of him and his revenge for a primal pain that many of us have felt in our lives.

John Wick, which has already released two sequels as of this review with another due out this year, alongside Ballerina starring Ana de Armas and a prequel series focused on the Continental, is not obviously set up to launch a franchise despite its tantalizing world-building. This is clear throughout the film that it is mostly self-contained. All of the major plot points are tied up, albeit not with a pristine bow due to the blood stains, but enough that it could stand on its own. The beauty of it, though, is that there were so many threads that could be pulled in order to elaborate on the glimmering-gritty underworld. The biggest question of all, though, is how they are able to exist beneath the surface of what most would consider the real world? Whether or not that question is answered, of course, is up in the air.

For now, the first John Wick film opened the doors to an original new story not based on previous intellectual property. In a world clamoring for originality while apparently drowning in revitalized franchises (which I am here for all the time), John Wick breathed new life into the action genre. It brought on a slew of successive action stories, such as Atomic Blonde and Mr. Nobody, which have relished in the renewed interest of brutal, in-your-face action sequences. No one can really tell what will constitute a success from the outset, but John Wick certainly proved to be a smashing hit that will not stop.

Much like the man himself has done.

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