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Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - John Wick

Directed by: Chad Stahelski
David Leitch

Produced by: Basil Iwanyk
David Leitch
Eva Longoria
Michael Witherill

Screenplay by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves
Michael Nyqvist
Alfie Allen
Adrianne Palicki
Bridget Moynahan
Dean Winter
Ian McShane
John Leguizamo
Willem Dafoe

Music by: Tyler Bates
Joel J. Richard

Cinematography by: Jonathan Sela

Editing by: Elisabet Ronalds

Studio(s): Thunder Road Pictures
87Eleven Productions
MJW Films
DefyNite Films

Distributed by: Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate (United States)
Warner Bros. (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): October 13, 2014 (New York City, premiere)
October 24, 2014 (United States)
April 10, 2015 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 101 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $20 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $86, 013, 056

Multitasking is a wonder, ain't it folks? As per usual in my preamble, I seem to be rambling on about doing this, that and the other. To say otherwise would I suppose be a falsity. Anywho, I am marching right on through now, especially with awards season just creeping around the corner. The Golden Globes nominations have come in, and some the expected nominees such as Carol, Joy and The Revenant have cropped up, but most surprisingly is that Mad Max: Fury Road is up for Best Picture in the Drama category. It also came up as Sight and Sound's third-best film of the year in their annual poll, so judging by this we could be looking at the possibility Mad Max: Fury Road being a dark horse in the Best Picture race at the Academy Awards. I still haven't seen it, but I do think it's great that a big-budget genre film is getting these kind of accolades. So, for all the latest and greatest as regards the movies, keep your eyes posted.

Speaking of genre films, today's film up for review is John Wick, also critically acclaimed and being hailed as a major comeback to the fore for star Keanu Reeves. Made for $20 million, it also became a bit of a sleeper hit at the box-office, clocking in over $80 million at the box-office, putting it in the unique position that only a few months after release in the United States a sequel was announced, and began shooting in October of this year. Jon Feltheimer, the Chief Executive Office of Lionsgate, the film's US distributer, said during a conference call that Lionsgate "see John Wick as a multiple-title action franchise," so who knows how many of these we could end up seeing. Anyway, the film was written by Derek Kolstad, who developed it for Thunder Road Pictures, and directed by the duo of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, both of whom have worked in the past as second unit directors, stunt coordinators and stunt doubles, collaborating with Reeves in The Matrix trilogy and his directorial debut Man Of Tai Chi. John Wick stars Keanu Reeves in the title role as a retired hitman who seeks vengeance after the brutal theft of his car and the killing of his puppy, a gift from his recently deceased wife. At risk of sounding lazy, that's as much as you need to go going. Really. Got it? Good!

Positives firstoff, I have to say that this is a welcome return to prominence from Keanu Reeves. The character of John Wick himself seems as if it was almost perfectly designed to cater to his strengths. Often (falsely) accused of being a poor actor, Reeves plays Wick as the character is developed, a myth rather than a man. It's one of those rare occasions when a certain degree of two-dimensionality is required to play the part, and Reeves more than follows that through. However, even in the first act of the film, which essentially acts as a prologue to the real crust of things, it's moving to see Reeves emotionally engaging with Wick's tragic nature, and this more than justifies his transformation into the single-minded Babi Yaga he's had locked away inside himself. Also, for a man now into his fifties, he's not only able to portray the ageless quality of the character, but he's more than capable of keeping up with the frenetic pace of the film's terrifically choreographed action sequences. There's a real flair for movement in the stunts here, both in pure fighting and gun fu scenes, that is often lacking in contemporary action movies. The cinematography and editing serves to back this up. There's no stupid shaky-cam nonsense, shots being extended out to accommodate the action onscreen, the cuts being razor-sharp in their precision. Several times I was able to disconnect from the overarching narrative of the film and simply bask in the craftsmanship and physical effort that those involved in these scenes have put into the film. Speaking of narrative, one of the more engaging elements of the film is how it subtly develops it's own universe. While co-existent at times with the real world, there is a deep, rich underworld involving cops, cons and private contractors, all vying for the same, mysterious form of currency, the source or meaning of which wisely isn't fully explained (a la the contents of Marcellus Wallace's Briefcase in Pulp Fiction). Little things like the Continental, a hotel designed as a neutral haven for assassins where no 'business' is to be conducted on the premises, add to this. It's also a movie that is not without fun and a good sense of humour. After the events that lead to John Wick going on the warpath, the perpetrator Iosef (Alfie Allen), a wannabe gangster whose father Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) is the head of the Russian crime syndicate in New York, is punched and thrown out of Aurelio's (John Leguizamo) chop shop after telling him how he acquired the car. Viggo rings Aurelio asking why he beat his son, with the car dealer telling the mobster simply "He stole John Wick's car and killed his dog," to which the reply is "... oh..." Viggo then proceeds to go ahead and beat his son himself for his stupidity. The film is full of moments of jet-black humour like this. Once again, as I mentioned, it also adds to the mystique of John Wick's person. Each of the performances, a number of which are strong in their own right, such as Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe and Lance Riddick, are aware Wick's status as an urban legend and his place (and theirs) in this world. There's a real sense of interconnectedness in the references to past associations between them, and it tickles our curiosity as outsiders to see these characters who all know each other well interact with one another. Finally, I was impressed by the work of directorial debutants Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Although the film is bolstered by a (mostly) strong screenplay, much of it's emotional crux is told through actions and not words. Even amidst scenes of violence and wanton destruction, there's moments of real balletic grace, which can certainly be attributed to the directors' past experiences as stuntmen/stunt coordinators. This is confident, assured filmmaking. Oh, and yes, I liked the score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, plus the non-original songs in the film, such as Marilyn Manson's Killing Strangers. 

Now, at risk of sounding like I'm repeating myself, much of what I find to be at fault with John Wick is more on the basis of my own aesthetic feelings about the film as a whole. For instance, I said it's a mostly strong screenplay for a reason, namely that while there's a lot that is fresh, there's also a bit that is fairly run of the mill. It might be done well, but the fact is is that we have seen the retired hitman come out of retirement umpteen times before to go down the path of revenge. Also, it has to be said that I think that this is one of those films that, although it may not have been initially pitched that way, is designed to establish a series, a world in which multiple instalments can exist. You take something like The Terminator, which does such a brilliant job of creating the basis for a franchise, but also exists and operates as a completely cohesive stand-alone picture with a beginning, middle and an end. The fact that I doubt about whether or not John Wick can exist on those terms is indicative to me that it doesn't succeed as well as it could.

Despite those doubts about whether or not the film can exist on it's own terms outside of a prospective franchise and that we have seen the central story of a retired hitman coming out of retirement umpteen times, John Wick is one of the better martial-arts/gun-fu actioners I've seen for a while. It's a part perfectly catered both from a physical and emotional standpoint for star Keanu Reeves. Also, there is a real flair for movement in the choreography and staging of the action sequences, which is backed up by astute cinematography and editing which serves to highlight the human effort involved in the stunts onscreen. The subtle development of the film having it's own universe, an underworld coexistent with our reality, of which John Wick himself is an urban legend, is well established, and directorial debutants Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make this a strong argument for their future in action cinema.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.4/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - So much to do, so little time

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