The trailers for “John Wick” would have you believe it is a thrilling and violent cinematic romp. It is a liar, liar, pants on fire. It would also have you believe the titular John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a smug assassin who commits violence for fun and profit. In fact pretty much the only similarity between the trailer and the film is that a puppy is murdered and many people in expensive suits are repeatedly shot at close range. Mileage may vary on the amount of joy one gains from an experience like this.
“John wasn’t the Boogeyman,” intones Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), a scowly Russian crime boss. “He was the one you sent to kill the Boogeyman.”
John Wick is the thing that goes bump in the night for criminals in this weird version of New York City, which is curious considering it is a world populated by sociopaths adept at committing violence and little else.
Wick is a retired assassin who exited organized crime for the love of his wife (the absentee Bridget Moynahan) and is left grieving after she passes from an unspecified illness that is glamorous as only movie illnesses can be. Wick’s switch is flipped to ‘kill’ when Tarasov’s petulant man-child son Iosef (Alfie Allen) assaults Wick, kills his puppy (a deus ex machina gift from his dead wife) and steals his muscle car.
“John Wick” is the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a man who has been the stunt coordinator on a score of mediocre films through the last two decades. Evidenced by this film, helping actors fake punch each other in the head in a convincing manner is one thing, directorial prowess, another. The term ‘workmanlike’ comes to mind, if that mind is feeling exceedingly generous.
Despite the action film resume it is a shock to discover just how thoroughly sub-par “John Wick’s” action sequences are. The stony-faced titular killer karate chops, stabs and shoots Russian gangsters over and over again in routine mid-close up– this framed with all the verve of a high-school photography student.
As Wick glumly murders his way into the second act, Derek Kolstad’s screenplay unfolds with strange tonal dissonance. On the warpath, Wick retrieves the implements of his trade from a suitcase buried in his basement floor. It is full of small arms (oooh!) and stacks of massive gold coins (wait, what?).
Wick uses his Super Mario coins to pay for all kinds of things including getting a room at the hotel Continental– a place where other impossibly well-dressed assassins dwell and socialize like a homecoming dance for the murder effete. It is a strange choice that is jarring, as the world launches suddenly into the realm of graphic novel storytelling. The change also comes complete with all-Russian dialogue appearing in glowing cartoon text. It is a shame the filmmakers never bothered to tell the actors that this grim business was supposed to be played for laughs.
“We’re cursed, you and I,” Tarasov tells Wick during the finale when it inexplicably begins to rain mid-scene. Try and restrain the eye-rolling.
Then an out-of-shape elderly gangster and a super-assassin proceed to have a fistfight. The match is understandably even.
“John Wick” is a film so detached from mirth it may as well be from another planet. It is sullen, uninteresting, dull to view and deadening to the senses. It is the anti-fun, the anti-thrill, the anti-taste– all without the decency to at least pretend to enjoy its own foolishness.
The only thing cursed about this film is its fate as a commercial produce– to wind up in the five dollar DVD bargain bin at a grocery store, deservedly forgotten and unloved.