Director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” is almost a contemporary vision of “Unforgiven,” and one that proves to be an excellent look at the cycle of violence. Stahelski opens up a world and narrative that feels paper thin but really is filled with layers and complex themes about grief and revenge. Keanu Reeves almost monotone performance comes in handy, as he plays a relentless and mythic hit man tasked with paying respect to the memory of a loved one. He does so with a gun, martial arts, and leaves a massive trail of bodies in his wake.
John Wick is a retired hit man who is still grieving the death of his beloved wife from cancer, who he left his profession for. When he receives a parting gift from her as a means of helping him cope, in the form of a puppy, John takes new leaps in moving on with his life. That comes to a screeching halt, when a group of Russian mobsters break in to his home and beat him up, in order to steal his car to take to a local chop shop dealer. What’s worse is that they also murder John’s dog in cold blood. Through this seemingly isolated act of robbery, the thugs set off a massive chain of events that leads to John coming out retirement to claim his car, and regain his self respect.
John is so good at what he does that everyone he comes in contact with displays immense respect toward him, thus his warpath becomes carved in stone. Especially as Viggo, the father of the Russian thug knows who John is and is desperately trying to keep his son alive. “John Wick” is the classic revenge tale that also manages to add surprising pathos to a man who was once a very vicious villain. When we first see John he’s a broken man whose lost the love of his life and simply can not rebuild, not does he know how to cope. Especially since violence keeps finding its way to his doorstep. What becomes a fascinating irony is that Wick can murder in cold blood, but the loss of his wife is a death weighs heavily on him, and will likely weigh on him for the rest of his life.
Reeves handles the martial arts scenes with sheer skill, wielding the gun like a master killer who almost always finds a way out of the tightest situations. Wick’s re-emergence even causes allegiances to fall apart, as a member of his assassin’s league named Ms. Perkins (an excellent performance by Adrienne Palicki) has decided to find John and kill him, while an old friend and master sniper (Willem Dafoe) has also been hired to take John down. What eventually rises to the surface is a play on the matter of honor and principle, and how it can be maintained in a world where there is none. The inadvertent antagonists in the narrative act on no sense of morality or ethics, while Wick is militant in his need to keep the code of his syndicate, even in the face of revenge. “John Wick” asks what happens when a hardened killer is interrupted in his effort to grieve the one person they actually loved. What results is a fantastic action picture, and one of the best revenge thrillers in a long time.