John Wick is a gut punch, a true experience of an action film that'll leave you with teeth sawdust on your popcorn. The fights are ridiculously intense, presided over by the film's two stuntmen directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. And, although the script dies towards the end, John Wick carries a campy, brilliantly self-aware tone that's wholly its own, a rare feat for a modern action film.
John Wick's identity comes from a few places. Wick himself, Keanu Reeves, makes for a dead-eyed killer, a kind of bizarro dark sider version of the righteous Neo from The Matrix. Second, the fight scenes are unique. They're seemingly endless, but more impressive is the raging style. Third, the music is electric and makes the film crackle with energy. And, lastly, the revenge factor in this movie is one of simple beauty: Wick is hunting the bastards who killed his dog.
Daisy isn't just any dog, however. The little beagle puppy was the final gift of Wick's dead wife (Bridget Moynahan), who has just passed after an illness. Wick, a retired hitman, sinks into the darkness, but the dog becomes his hope. Suddenly he has a reason to live again.
But that reason is ripped from John Wick. Looking to steal his custom Mustang, a privileged Russian mobster, Iosef (Alfie Allen), and his cronies break into Wick's house, pummel him, and kill Daisy in the process. Big mistake.
It's here we learn who John Wick is. He's "The Boogeyman," a former assassin who was once employed by Iosef's powerful father, the Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Enraged, Viggo is told why an accomplice punched his son after trying to hock the Mustang. "He stole John Wick's car." Viggo calms down immediately, gazes off into the distance and replies, "Oh."
It's moments like this that will make you fall for John Wick. Even the villains talk about the hero reverentially. It never takes itself too seriously, the biggest mistake made by generic action films these days (I'm looking at you, The Equalizer). Nyqvist leads the way. His Viggo is a fantastic camp villain and the rest of the film's amazing cast further compliments the notion. Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Lance Reddick, Adrianne Palicki, and Clarke Peters all show up in assorted colorful roles and invigorate scenes.
Reeves, whose expressionless face and soft-spoken manner can't predict the fury boiling inside him, is on point as the title hero. He learned martial arts from Yuen Woo-ping on The Matrix years ago and impressed recently in The Man of Tai Chi, but John Wick shows another fighting side of Reeves. His hand to hand skills are on full display here, but the actor really shows off his weaponry skills. Knives and especially handguns become an extension of Reeves' fist as he begins his hunt for Iosef and initializes an all-out war with Viggo. Wick constantly gets the drop on his enemies so the fight scenes begin as shooting practice. Reeves is methodical with the handgun, double tapping scores of cannon fodder bad guys who come at him in waves. Unlike other movies that may not have the heart to embrace violence completely, John Wick stacks bodies to the ceiling. Leitch and Stahelski find a happy medium between the long takes of old Bruce Lee movies and the modern, 20 cut fight scenes of John Woo.
The music of John Wick, by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, with additional songs from Marilyn Manson and Kaleida, among others, further pushes the wicked mood of the film. Finally, an action movie that doesn't use Hans Zimmer's Inception pulses, and instead relies on music that accompanies instead of dictates. The score is wholly modern, electronic, and fitted to scenes perfectly.
The lure of John Wick is in the vicious fight sequences, of course, but this is a movie with a lot more going for it. The look and feel of the film are a credit to the first-time directors and cinematographer Jonathan Sela. The fun of the script, by Derek Kolstad, is brought to life by the amazing cast. And the lead performance of Reeves is his most likable in years. This is a movie with the sheen of more—it looks like Drive, The Crow, or Manhunter, nighttime films by Nicolas Winding Refn, Alex Proyas, and Michael Mann that sizzle with danger. There's even a reference to Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville's influential heist film of 1970. "The Red Circle" as explained by the Buddha via epigraph in Melville's movie, symbolizes the inevitable meeting of two men. It's this kind of detail that elevates John Wick, making it the best non-Marvel action movie of 2014, and one destined to be loved for years to come.