(Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, 2014)
John Wick achieves a strange sort of perfection.
It keeps certain elements blessedly simple; the plot, for example, finds former legendary assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves, arguably the leading action star of the last couple of decades in terms of pure strike rate - The Matrix, Speed and this is some action c.v...) brooding on the recent death of his beloved wife (a Bridget Moynihan seen only in flashback and on iphone videos). Prior to her death she has arranged for a puppy to be delivered to give him something to love, but when nasty Russian gangster (Alfie Allen) takes a fancy to Wick's vintage Mustang, a nocturnal invasion of his house leaves Wick badly beaten, without his car, and with a dead puppy.
Thus we have a revenge thriller, and you know it is going to be bloody by the response of the elder gangsters to the youngster's impulsive act - their terror of Wick evident in a few facial expressions and awed dialogue exchanges. After the first big action set-piece we realise that this film is set in a sort of comic book universe wherein the criminal underworld exists by a set of odd rules, trading gold coins for a body clean-up service or access to a hotel and bar called the Continental, where there is no violence or business permitted. That explains the heightened colours of the photography here, which is stylish and often beautiful.
Even more beautiful is the action choreography. Action scenes are often misleadingly labelled "balletic", when more usually they are chopped up and hyperactively edited for visceral impact. But this film - directed by two former stuntmen and second unit directors, who obviously intimately know their stuff - is shot like a classic musical. While the camera moves steadily, the takes are long and beautifully choreographed and blocked; combatants dart and tumble in and out of frame as Reeves despatches them in ludicrous numbers, generally with a pistol but also with his fists and feet, blades, assault rifles and even automobiles. There is a dark wit to some of this - notably in the inventive, quick solutions Wick improvises to certain problems in combat -and it is all incredibly satisfying on a couple of levels. It has the obvious pleasure of the righteous revenge film - they killed his puppy!! - and the satisfaction of watching action that is coherent, stylish and pleasingly impactful.
It goes on a little too long but it has lots of great character actors in minor roles (a couple of The Wire alumni, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo all pop up), always looks and sounds beautiful, is brilliantly serious in its goofy silliness, and generally makes you wish every action film could be so good. It is also great to see Reeves embrace action, where he is effective as Liam Neeson; brawny, broody and elegant of movement, he is perfect here. And in those intricate, hilarious action scenes, it feels almost transcendent and tremendous; perfect.