Sunday, November 9, 2014

John Wick

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Denzel Washington Keanu Reeves Kills Everyone

One sentence synopsis:    A former Russian Mafia hitman is dragged back into the world of violence and revenge when a mob boss' son steals his car and kills his dog.

Things Havoc liked:  ...

... was it just me? Or was Keanu Reeves the bad guy in this movie?

So... it's not uncommon, really, to leave a Keanu Reeves movie confused. Of all the actors that commonly grace my theater screens, he's one of the ones I have the most trouble with placing in the appropriate mental box. He's manifestly not a great actor, I shouldn't need to list you the citations for that claim. But neither is he a bad actor, really, not even in the sense of an actor who is only good at one thing. I know he has a reputation for having a very limited range, and I can see why, but you think you have the guy figured out, and then you turn around and watch My Own Private Idaho or A Scanner Darkly, or read the rave, gushing reviews he garnered in the 90s playing Hamlet and Iago on stage, and you realize you have no idea what to do with him whatsoever, nor how to react when a movie in which he stars is being produced. I recognize that this may be a bit of a over-philosophical way to begin the review of a movie about a lone badass slaughtering the entire Russian Mafia, but this is not a normal Bronson-style revenge movie, and when you consider who and what Keanu Reeves is, that much should probably have been apparent from the get go.

John Wick (Reeves) is your typical invincible action badass, somewhat, though not exactly, in the vein of other MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW characters in the past (for those who don't remember, that acronym stands for Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women, a concept well-traveled in action movies since the 70s, and that has gathered quite a bit of steam in recent years). I use the term here loosely, as Keanu has no woman to threaten (his wife has died of cancer, you see, leaving him only a cute dog to take care of), nor is his badassery that secretive. In the first of many odd deviations from the usual formula of these sorts of movies, the head of the Russian Mafia (about whom we will say more), upon being told that wrongs have been inflicted on John Wick, reacts not with contemptuous, self-confident laughter or indifference, but with pants-shitting terror at the revelation that a man such as Wick has been inconvenienced in the slightest way. Keanu plays this role the way more or less the only way he knows how, a terse, morose, gaunt figure who seems semi-depressed when he's not initiating thunderous violence against his enemies (and, frankly, also when he is), speaking in gruff whispers and never using two words where one mumbled half-word will do. This is stock-and-trade Reeves, identical to his turns in the Matrix series, Constantine, A Scanner Darkly, or 47 Ronin. And yet the role demands nothing more of him than this, having been clearly constructed around Reeves' capabilities and strengths, which are less in the realm of dramatic emotion, and more in the realm of cinematic death.

And oh yes, the death is cinematic. These movies are, as I've said before, Male-Chick-Flicks, rehashes of our inner fantasies of power and revenge, and given that the main character in them is typically a stand-in for some idealized version of ourselves, we like it when that character is shown as a bad, bad man. Reeves, after decades of action movie training, knows exactly what he's doing, showing us a remorseless, unstoppable killing machine, capable of annihilating his enemies like a Fury, cutting them down like wheat-stalks with mechanical precision and regularity. Criticisms of these sorts of revenge-flicks often focus on the ludicrous implausibility for one man to overcome and destroy dozens of his counterparts, and yet rather than dial back John Wick's indestructibility, this film instead decides to ratchet it up several more notches, explicitly dumping the everyman qualities we normally get with these kinds of protagonists, until actually accept the body count by virtue of the fact that this is obviously some kind of deranged death-genius who could never pass for normal.

And it's not just the audience who is expected to come to that conclusion. Indeed the strongest element of the film is not Reeves, nor the action, but the side characters and the world. A movie that includes Willem Defoe, Lance Reddick, Ian MacShane, and John Leguizamo in its secondary cast can get away with a whole hell of a lot, and wisely, the film never really stops to explain just who the hell these people are, instead simply letting them populate a world that makes perfect sense to them if not to us. It's a world wherein everyone is a badass, centering around "The Continental", a hotel-for-hitmen that one can only access with specialty golden coins, where both the clientele and the staff are badass killers who agree under severe penalty not to "conduct business" on the premises. Nothing about this makes the slightest degree of sense, but nothing about it really needs to. We accept the existence of SHIELD in the Marvel films with no more leaps of faith than are required here, after all, and the film is so confident that it makes sense in its own context that we do manage to follow it through.

But the best thing in the film is actually none of the above people, but Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who two years ago played a completely forgettable super-villain in Mission Impossible 4, and whom I've heard nothing of since. This time round he takes a turn as Viggo Tarasov, head of an unnamed Russian crime syndicate, a role that could quite easily have been a clone of the previous one, but is instead nothing of the sort, for Tarasov, to my astonishment, is actually the most reasonable person in the entire film. Early on, when informed that his son (Alfie Allen, reprising all the stupidity of Theon Greyjoy) has beaten John Wick, stolen his car and killed his dog, he reacts much like I expect anyone would when told that an invincible action protagonist is coming for them. He tries, unsuccessfully, to atone for the insult, offering to make peace and pay concessions, all to no avail, and when the storm breaks, he marshals what forces he has to try and hold back the tide, knowing full well that he is up against a force of nature that cannot be stopped, not by anyone or for anything. Far from cackling madly at the skies, as the movie progresses, Tarasov seems to become almost philosophical by the direction things have taken, aware that he is no more able to divert the wrath of John Wick than he would an approaching hurricane, and that the only choice left is how he wishes to meet the inevitable conclusion.

Things Havoc disliked:  Returning for a moment to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, it's worth noting that for all the pretensions this film has to showing without telling, when it does stop to tell us things, it manages to do so in an extremely heavy-handed fashion. The early sequences in the film when Keanu almost grudgingly "bonds" with the puppy he is given by his dead wife are clearly designed as a thin excuse to grant him permission to embark on the rampage of revenge that forms the rest of the movie. So, incidentally, is the initializing act of the revenge drama, the theft of the car and the murder of the dog in question. We are expected to believe that Alfie Allen, son of a mob boss though he may be, reacts to literally every person who so much as fails to speak deferentially to him at a gas station by breaking into their house, beating them with iron bars, stealing their cars and killing their pets. This approaches Steven Segal levels of flimsy, and moreover incorporates within it another major flaw, that the putative bad guys refuse to take several perfectly good opportunities to kill John Wick, despite having him chained up/beaten/knocked unconscious in the presence of many goons. Clearly it is far more important to tie him to a chair in an abandoned building somewhere so that we can deliver monologues to him once he wakes up. How else would the audience be able to tell that a man who has lost millions of dollars, dozens of men, and most of his criminal organization to John Wick's antics doesn't like him?

Regarding exposition, there is such a thing as too little. Willem Defoe is a treasure, and I love seeing him on screen, but I have no idea what his character is or what his intentions are. His motives seem to vary widely from scene to scene, whether because consistency is not to be used in this film, or because the movie itself can't make up its mind who he is. Adrianne Palicki meanwhile, playing yet another invincible assassin, stakes her allegiances early on, despite the fact that doing so seems to be a death sentence, putting her up against not only an invincible assassin, but an entire organization of invincible assassins to which he belongs. One that, having betrayed in the worst way possible, she agrees to meet, unsuspectingly, in dark alleys without witnesses, the agents thereof. Ian MacShane meanwhile, who plays a character I only learned was the head of this organization by reading the Wikipedia page afterwards, has no purpose whatsoever in the plot save to offer up a couple bits of information, a trait he shares with John Leguizamo, who gets roughly twelve seconds of overall screentime. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy any chance to see either of these two on screen (much to my surprise in Leguizamo's case), but it would have been nice to see them in actual roles instead of in random scenes strung together on chicken wire.

Final thoughts:   I've never been a great evangelist for revenge films like this one. There's exceptions of course, most of them marital arts movies, but the bulk of Hollywood fare in this genre is strictly MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW material, and there's only so many times you can watch Liam Neeson or whoever intoning grave threats to a sneering, usually ethnic, bad guy, preparatory to killing his entire criminal network in order of total screentime least to most. I don't know if John Wick was an intentional effort to shake the genre up a bit, or if the filmmakers (first time director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad) stumbled into this strange combination of an unreasonably vicious protagonist and uncommonly reasonable antagonist completely by accident. I don't know, ultimately, if it matters, but if I'm being blatantly, embarrassingly honest... I... kinda liked it. I liked it better than the goddamn Equalizer if nothing else. A movie that brings a fresh idea to a well-stocked table, even if it's buttressed by otherwise poor decisions, is almost certainly going to win out over movies that offer me the same exact thing as six or seven other films I could cite by name.

Maybe I'm reading way too much into this thing. Maybe this was nothing more than an attempt to create a formula revenge film that misfired gloriously. But sometimes art can only be found, not made, and while I'm not sure if John Wick is art, I am sure it'll turn out to have been a much better movie than Taken 3.

Not that a January release date has anything to do with that...

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Week:   Matthew McConaughey takes us to the stars while still managing to remove his shirt.

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