RECAP: John Wick

John Wick (2014): Chad Stahelski

Somebody sent a script to Keanu Reeves, in which he could wear suits and shoot guns. Sign him up! One of our finest action stars, Reeves turns Wick into an action icon.

John Wick hit screens in October and went away quietly into the night, exactly the opposite of the way John Wick goes into the night. Slowly, the film built a cult following into a sequel movement.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: John Wick takes revenge on those who killed his puppy. 

Hero (7/10)

John Wick begins near where it ends. A damaged SUV rolls into a concrete wall. Wick (Keanu Reeves) keels out of the driver’s door and stumbles across the pavement. He dials up a video of a woman on a beach. He passes out.

Rewind events to a few days ago. John Wick’s wife died a few days before that few days ago. She kicked the bucket with the big C. Wick struggles with her death: he keeps her bracelet on his nightstand and flashes back to key moments between them.

He attends the funeral and wake, at his house, and speaks to almost no one. All their friends were her friends.

A few days later John Wick receives a crate. Inside the crate is a puppy named Daisy and a letter from his deceased wife. The dog is for him to love, because he has to love something, and “because the car doesn’t count.”

Wick learns to live with Daisy. He doesn’t change his routine of waking at 6:00 each morning (but why? He has no job.), but he lets the dog sleep in his bed. He has to remember to let her outside from time to time.

You kill his dog, you die.
You kill his dog, you die.

In turn, Daisy follows him everywhere, including the local airport, where Wick drives his Ford Mustang recklessly for fun, and to work out some possibly suicidal issues.

After talking down some Russian thugs at a local gas station, Wick is visited by them one night. They kill Daisy. For fun. They leave the dead dog beside Wick for when he awakens from his beating.

BIG. MISTAKE. Perhaps the biggest mistake since God forgot to leave evil out of his Creation plan. John Wick is more than a man. John Wick is an avenging demon god.

Wick’s former employer, Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyquist), describes Wick as a “man of focus, determination, sheer will,” and also as a guy who once killed three men with a pencil. In The Dark Knight, we saw The Joker kill one man with a pencil. Wick is three times scarier than The Joker at killing with pencils.

As Viggo explains these facts to his dog-murdering son, Iosef (Alfie Allen) Wick is busy smashing his cement floor with a sledgehammer. That’s where he keeps some guns and gold coins, which will come in handy later.

John Wick kills perhaps more than 80 people in about 90 minutes. He kills them joylessly, ruthlessly, efficiently. Many villains are dispatched with head shots at close range, medium range, and long range. He’s not a fisticuffs guy, because those take too long.

He knows who he is, and that’s why Wick was lucky to get out. He did so once, when Viggo assigned him an impossible task that no one could complete. But John Wick did it, making Viggo into what he is today. Wick got life on the other side, and it was “far better than I deserved.”

Iosef drags Wick back into the world of crime, though Wick pretends he’s just visiting for a while, like when you roll doubles three times in Monopoly and try to pretend like you’re on the Just Visiting space surrounding Jail and hope no one notices.

Everyone notices. I called John Wick a demon, and he certainly seems like one when he busts into Viggo’s church. Wick kills mobsters and shoots the priest–the priest!–to get him to open a large vault containing stacks of cash and Viggo’s leverage over New York’s top citizens.

“They sure as fuck broke the mold with you,” Viggo says to Wick. Up until this point, Wick has barely shown anger, on his face at least. Viggo taunts him, telling him let go the memory of his wife and Daisy the puppy.

She was more than just a dog, Wick says. Daisy was the only thing tethering him to sanity, to a real life. Now he’s mad. Now, NOW, he’s back.

John Wick does not fear cars bearing down on him. He does not fear a club full of armed guards. He does not fear stabbing himself in the gut to gain the upper hand in a fight. He fears nothing, is feared by all, kills at will and seems invincible. He might be the closest to a demon we’ll ever see.

Villain (7/10)

Even though Iosef taunts John Wick, kills his dog, and sends him on a killing spree of legend, his father is the chief villain. Partly that’s because Iosef is a nobody who can’t fend for himself, always waiting for Daddy to come save him,

Viggo runs a big Russian crime syndicate in New York City. Like a lot of big-time villains, he has men to spare for any situation, and his son creates one hell of a situation.

After Iosef steals John Wick’s car, the punk shows up at a chop shop run by a man named Aurelio (John Leguizamo). Iosef mouths off to Aurelio, who punches him in the face.

Aurelio gets a call later from Viggo, the top dog, asking why he struck his son and ready to murder for almost any reason. He punched the kid because he stole John Wick’s car. Remember, I said almost any reason. Viggo hears this and all emotion deflates from him. “Oh,” he mutters, suddenly fearful.

That fear drives Viggo for most of the film. He’s not excited about a big deal he closed because of the Wick situation. He must rattle off Wick’s achievements to a son who knows nothing of him. “That fucking nobody is John Wick,” he tells him. He wasn’t the Boogeyman, he was the guy you sent to kill the Boogeyman, and the Boogeyman is Viggo. John Wick killed enough people to help Viggo become what he is today, and that scares him.

Viggo tries to sort out the mess over the phone. That doesn’t work, so he has his number two man send all his men to Wick’s house to kill him. Sort of a preemptive strike. And like the one in Iraq, that fire burns long and bright and toward everything.

Viggo doing some parenting
Viggo doing some parenting

Viggo even speaks of John Wick as if he were a demon. In Nyquist’s Russian accent he says “Wick” with the breathiest flare, as if his voice were trying to catch the name as it floats in the air.

He puts out a contract for Wick: $2 million. He’ll double that for killing him in the neutral-ground Continental Hotel. He’s that scared.

Viggo’s fear turns to rage after Wick destroys a huge cache of money inside an Orthodox church. It wasn’t just money Wick burned, it was Viggo’s leverage over New York: boxes of tapes, other evidence.

“People don’t change,” Viggo says. “Times, they do.” He believes that God gave Wick’s wife cancer to punish Wick for his past deeds. Leave it to a man like Viggo to think a woman’s cancer is about a man. “This life follows you,” he says. “We are cursed, you and I.” Wick answers, “On that, we agree.”

How will the future curse Viggo? Shortly after trying to kill Wick, he tells Wick where to find his son, on the condition that he be allowed to go free.

Viggo checks out from then on. He flees, or tries to, but he’s resigned to his end. On the way to a helicopter and possible freedom, others in Viggo’s car panic as Wick drives them down. Viggo laughs.

Viggo undergoes a real character arc in John Wick. From scared to angry to resigned to acceptance, he behaves as if John Wick were terminal cancer. And in Viggo’s case, that’s only barely a metaphor.

Action/Effects (8/10)

In the center of John Wick, standing like a pillar of gore, is a scene inside the Red Circle nightclub. John Wick has traced Iosef there, and Iosef’s daddy knows Wick will find him. He’s staked guards on all the club’s levels, including the basement of pools and grottoes, where Iosef drinks with his friends and bikini-clad ladies.

They won’t be enough. Before Wick enters the club, he pulls a gun on his friend and bouncer Francis, who is not with the mob, and gives him the night off. Next, Wick enters the changing room, first disappearing one goon and stabbing the next in neck. This is just to get at Iosef’s robe-wearing friend.

Poor guy’s kicked in the balls and has his neck broken over the sink, after he tells Wick where to find Iosef. Wick takes the guy’s phone.

This sequence is bathed in blue and red lights that evoked many Moulin Rouge paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. There’s nothing natural about the spaces.

Wick spots Iosef in a pool and glares at him. The time’s not right. Wick waits for the guards to check in with the security people, giving them the all clear, before he stabs them. One guy gets a knife to the chest and chin, and Wick stares him down, down, down the wall.

Love the lighting in the Red Circle
Love the lighting in the Red Circle

One guy pops behind Wick and surprises him, drawing but not shooting his gun. They wrestle and Wick’s driven into a towel rack. Let’s light this party up!

Wick rolls over that guy and shoots two others. He stares down Iosef, who’s taken a gun from his towel. Wick’s not going to kill the boy yet. As he stares at Iosef, Wick shoots the man he’s sitting on top of. A hulking Russian emerges from a pool like some Stalinist metaphor. Wick stamps his toe and put four-plus rounds into him.

Wick fires through glass at Iosef and misses. Wick looks confused; he never misses. He caps more guys and chases the boy upstairs to the dance floor.

Iosef might be running for his life, yet he retains the sense to keep a towel wrapped around his waist. Two guys go for Wick. The dance floor is packed and he wants no collateral damage, so Wick shoots from the hip, driving the second guy into the floor with three shots. The party continues.

On the top level, Wick encounters several goons and panicking club patrons. He dispatches the bad guys with one or two shots, often finishing with a head shot. One guy comes at Wick, who shoots but misses, strikes him in the chest with the gun, pulls the trigger, is out of ammo, reloads as the bad guy staggers, primes the pistol, and shoots him in the head.

More guys die. Wick kicks one body through a door and slides on the floor, dragging a guy down with him. He’s dead. Two more are dead. Next room.

Six more guys are shot. Were this a video game, Wick would have leveled up five times by now. But John Wick isn’t a video game, it’s a hyper-realistic action movie.

A bald Russian with a twirly mustache pops in. Wick shoots his leg, smashes his face with a glass, drags him by the beard into a cocktail table, pounds his head on the table, and shoots him in the head twice.

The lead bodyguard enters with another guy. They are the first to shoot Wick, and in his torso. Remember the bulletproof vest he strapped on earlier? Let that be a lesson to all you dog-avenging ex-hitmen out there.

Wick’s out of rounds. He bails. The lead bodyguard smells a kill. Iosef is outside the club and into his car.

Wick attacks the lead bodyguard. He grabs the gun hand to disarm him. The bad guy kicks Wick. Wick has a look on his face like “I could use a coffee right now.” The bad guy delivers four unanswered punches.

Wick drives the man toward a ledge, where the bad guy grabs a champagne bottle, smashes it on Wick’s arm, and stabs his gut. He lifts Wick and throws him onto the dance floor below. Wick draws his last, small pistol and shoots at the guy but misses.

Wick leaves the club and takes a call on Victor’s phone from Iosef. “Victor’s dead,” Wick says. “Everything’s got a price.”

Sidekicks (3/8)

John Wick acts like he doesn’t need help. Friends come to his aid in times of crisis, and had they not, it’d have been a short movie.

Wick’s best friend, perhaps his only friend, is Marcus (Willem Dafoe). Marcus is also a hit man, probably the kind of guy Wick would be sent to kill. We first meet Marcus as a shadowy figure attending the funeral of the late Mrs. Wick. Not really attending, though, but watching the people attending.

Marcus tells Wick not to blame himself for her death. I don’t know why he would, and no reason is given. Wick considers it bad luck.

Marcus
Marcus

We don’t see Marcus again until much later, after Viggo has opened a contract on Wick’s life. The crime boss brings the offer to Marcus in person. Marcus, upon hearing that John Wick is worth $2 million dead, wastes no time accepting the job.

He has a fine apartment to maintain, complete with grand piano, and a juicing habit. I mean actual vegetable juice, freshly pressed. Vegetables are not cheap. He’ll need that $2 million. After he accepts the contract, he opens a gun cabinet beneath his stairs and lays out several guns on the piano. Now we know why he owns a piano.

Later, Marcus sets up his sniper rifle outside Wick’s hotel room at the Continental. Wick, recovering on the bed and with the curtains open, doesn’t see another assassin named Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) step into the room. Marcus, with $2 million in his sight, hits the bed pillow inches to Wick’s right. Wick rolls off the bed to fight off Perkins and capture her. All thanks to Marcus.

Later still, Wick is tied to a chair in a warehouse, face-to-face with Viggo. Wick decides he is back in business. “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.”

Then two goons put a bag over Wick’s head and start suffocating him. Marcus again saves the day, shooting one of the two men, allowing Wick to break free and kill the other one.

John Wick’s angel of death receives a sad sendoff. Viggo knows Marcus helped Wick survive. The crime lord arrives at Marcus’s home and beats him bloody, stabbing his leg for good measure. Marcus says he’ll go out on his terms. He steals a gun from one of the men holding him and kills both of them. Perkins shoots Marcus, though, and Viggo finishes the job.

Henchmen (5/8)

Iosef might be the guy who starts John Wick’s murder party, but his dad Viggo is the true villain. Iosef gets discussed here.

He sucks. No one likes Iosef, and the dude knows it. He lashes out at everyone, even his friends. Iosef first meets John Wick at a New Jersey gas station. He takes a liking to Wick’s ride, a ’69 Mustang 429, and asks how much he’ll sell it for. It’s not for sale. In Russian Iosef says, “Everything has a price, bitch.”

Iosef and his two friends show up that night to beat Wick and kill his puppy. The mistake of his life. Papa Viggo learns of this, and he punches his son in the stomach, which makes him puke. Viggo forces Iosef to clean it up. Then the kid says he can make it right, after Viggo has told him he once saw John Wick kill three men in a bar with a pencil. Iosef is Fredo Corleone-dumb.

Iosef taking his leave from murderous John Wick, towel in hand.
Iosef taking his leave from murderous John Wick, towel in hand.

Iosef decides to party away his problems at the Red Circle nightclub. He drinks champagne in a pool grotto with ladies and some of his friends. Dozens of men are placed throughout the club watching for Wick.

Iosef tries to get the lead bodyguard to drink with him. He refuses, saying that he’s not here to babysit a drunkard. Iosef says he’s not scared and he wants another bottle, exactly what a baby might say.

Wick comes for Iosef but doesn’t get to him, yet. The kid runs through the club wearing a towel, which I guess makes him think he kept his dignity intact.

Viggo’s son escapes to a safe house in Brooklyn. He’s scared now. He can’t endure his friend playing a shooting video game. Neither can John Wick, who snipes the friend through his headphones. Wick kills Iosef’s guards and destroys the getaway cars before shooting Iosef in the leg. Wick finishes him with a headshot.

Iosef was a pathetic, spoiled Daddy’s boy who was hated by all, including himself. He was no threat to John Wick and easily killed, satisfyingly so.

Stunts (4/6)

John Wick is not a man to waste actions in killing people. He wants to end a life as quickly and as efficiently as possible. When a dozen guys infiltrate your house, you have no time to waste killing one guy.

Wick’s combat ethos (whether from pragmatism or choice): avoid lengthy hand-to-hand combat, and I think that makes the film unique. You don’t see Wick trading two dozen blows with an enemy. He’d rather shoot the guy.

Adrianne Palecki as Perkins
Adrianne Palicki as Perkins

Nevertheless, punches can’t all be pulled. During the home invasion scene, Wick waits for the killers to come to him. They carry flashlights, giving away their positions. Wick steps into the men and shoots them at very close or point-blank range, often while holding their gun arms. Sometimes Wick will grapple with an opponent while shooting an approaching target.

One guy enters Wick’s home and Wick struggles to kill him. He body slams him on the kitchen island as another enemy slashes at him with a knife. Wick smashes his forearm into the guy on the island, whose head dangles over the edge, cracking his neck.

Wick battles for some time with the knife-wielding guy. They wrestle for control in Wick’s spacious, well lit hallway. Wick sweeps the leg, slamming the guy to the ground. The camera slowly moves in. The bad guy has the knife, and it appears that Wick grasps the blade to take the knife away. The music crescendos as Wick slowly overpowers the man in bringing the knife toward his chest.

Suddenly, Wick seems inspired to kill him a different way. He grabs the enemy’s head to fling him backward. Wick straddles the enemy and tries to use his body weight to plunge the knife downward. This doesn’t work, so he whacks at it, driving the blade once, twice, thrice into the man, the last being the killing blow.

There’s little artistry in play in the fight scenes. Wick kills efficiently, and that’s how his fight scenes are filmed. The artistry is all in the lighting, camera work, and character clothing choices. Don’t misunderstand, I consider these choices unusual and welcome in the action genre.

Climax (3/6)

Wick gets word from trustworthy Winston, owner of the Continental Hotel that Viggo is about to flee town on a “certain helicopter.” Wick drives his new ride there, where Viggo is in one of two cars on the way to the chopper. Of course Wick comes out of nowhere to attack ruthlessly.

Wick drives his Dodge Charger (I think) into the trailing Chevy SUV and nudges it over a ledge onto concrete below. Testament to the filmmakers for not making the car explode.

Viggo is still alive in the lead car. He’s pretty soused, too. Avi, Viggo’s number two, riding shotgun but without one, demands a gun. he’s nervous, knowing that death is coming. Viggo laughs in the back seat. “That was a good one,” he says as Wick slams the car a few times.

Wick sees an opportunity and pushes the car from the rear, forcing it to spin and smash the passenger side–Avi’s side–into a concrete pylon.

Viggo orders his men out and to “go kill him.” Three obey. Wick reverses his car and into the first guy who tumbles over the roof. As he rolls over the car, Wick shoots him through the roof. The next guy Wick sideswipes, and as he lies on the ground, Wick leans out the window and shoots him dead.

Viggo lights a cigarette as Avi freaks out and begs to run to the chopper. There’s another guy using the car door as protection. He sprays Wick’s car with bullets and misses. Wick reverses into the door to sandwich him to death. Another guy, using a concrete barricade for cover, receives a lead kiss as Wick drives his car around the thing and pops a few into the shooter.

They got Mayhem!
They got Mayhem!

Viggo teases Avi with a gun. “Good luck,” he says. Avi stumbles out. He shoots Wick’s driver-side door and laughs at the gun’s power. Wick responds with a shot to the thigh. Wick drives toward Avi and at the last minute swerves the car. Avi’s head busts through the passenger side glass. Coughing up blood, Avi slides away.

WHAM. Viggo drives his car into Wick’s and toward a ledge. Wick scrambles out the rear and into the rain as the car falls 40 feet.

Viggo lives. “No more guns,” he says. “No more bullets.” Wick tosses the gun away. Viggo tries his best, sending phantom punches Wick’s way. You get the sense that John’s toying with his former boss. “Do I look civilized to you?” he asks Viggo. He does, a little, because of the suit.

Viggo draws a knife. Wick has an idea. He allows Viggo he stab the wound he received earlier at the Red Circle nightclub. It’s a genius idea, because he won’t get a new wound from this. Wick, the knife in him, breaks Viggo’s arm and takes the knife, which he then jabs into Viggo’s shoulder. Both guys stumble back and breathe hard, clutching their wounds.

“Be seeing you, John,” Viggo says as his life expires. The knife sticks out from his shoulder. Wick walks toward the car and drives into the wall like we saw in the beginning. Luckily for Wick he drove to a vet where he can do some first aid as dogs in cages look on. He finds a dog in a cage and takes it home.

You know what? He earned that new dog.

Jokes (2/4)

This 90-minute kill fest squeaks in some light humor. No one ever accused Keanu Reeves of being a funny man, and I won’t here, but he can fake it enough if given the right material.

After Wick kills a dozen hit men sent to his home, he hears the doorbell ring. Hey, what do you know, it’s John’s local constable, Jimmy. Jimmy looks inside and sees two dead bodies and asks Wick if he’s “working again.” “Just sorting some stuff out,” Wick says. Sure are.

Later, in his hotel room, Wick receives a call from the desk clerk about some noise complaints. It was just Perkins trying to kill him is all. Wick calls her an “uninvited guest.” All understatement, John Wick is.

OK, that’s about it for the comedy. But it’s enough. John Wick knows what it is and what it is not. It’s titular character isn’t John McClane or even John Rambo from a comedic point of view.

Setting (2/4)

John Wick lives in New Jersey, but he spends most of his onscreen time in Manhattan. Several overhead shots cast New York as an endless sea of skyscrapers, the kind of town one could easily be lost in. In the criminal underworld, one wants to be lost.

Another gratuitous puppy picture
Another gratuitous puppy picture

The movie’s best scene takes place in the Red Circle nightclub. This place is the jam. Dancing on two floors, secluded pools in the basement, who wouldn’t want to hang out here? They’ve updated Roman baths for the 21st century.

John Wick is the only action movie I can recall in which the good guy shoots up a church. Wick even shoots the priest. Then again, most churches don’t have key pad access to an illegal bank vault.

Commentary (2/2)

The moral of John Wick: do not kill a man’s dog; he will kill you; you will deserve it.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The most offensive part of John Wick is the murder of a puppy. At least, and thank the film gods for this, the dog dies off camera.

Others

  • I’m a fan of Lance Reddick. Ever since his days on LOST I’ve enjoyed seeing him because he resemble Death.

Summary (43/68): 63%

Fierce fighting, a charmless lead character, a puppy: John Wick runs the gamut between cuteness and brutality. The premise is simple and devastating. A man takes revenge on those who killed his dog.

John Wick throws in great gun combat and beautiful visuals to overcome its thin characters. Sometimes that’s enough for a great action movie, and that’s the case here.