Monday, November 3, 2014

John Wick

There is a phenomenon I'm running into more and more often nowadays: the question of "is it out yet?" This seems to happen most often with movies; between early reviews, rolling trailer releases, and weeks of promotions, I often find myself excited to see a movie, only to realize that it won't be out for another two weeks.

Such was the case with Interstellar, a movie my wife and I are very interested in seeing, but apparently doesn't come out until this week. Which was a damn shame, because we were all psyched up to go see it this past weekend. I'm not entirely sure why we thought the movie would be out (my guess is that the media buzz leading up to it's release tipped us off early,) but, due to a malfunction in my time machine, we had to bump our plans back a week.

A similar thing happened with the latest Keanu Reeves action movie, John Wick. I first read a (very positive) review of the movie around a month or so ago. For whatever reason - chalk it up to originally only seeing reviews on TV or reading them in newspapers/magazines - I'm conditioned to expect that, by the time I read a movie review, the movie is either out or will be out shortly. So when I read the review I expected John Wick to be in theaters, and I was excited to see it.

Apparently I had gotten a hold of an early review or something, because I was off by a few weeks. John Wick eventually released and more positive reviews came along. I was still interested in seeing it, though it being an action movie made it a difficult pitch for movie night.

Fortunately I managed to have some extra free time this past weekend, which allowed me to catch John Wick before it slid out of theaters.

And goddamn was that worth the money.

There isn't a lot to say about John Wick that hasn't been said elsewhere, but I'll add my praise to the pile all the same: it's one of the best action movies I've seen in awhile. If you're a fan of action movies and you've been looking for your fix, go see it ASAP. You will not regret this decision, and everyone behind John Wick deserves to have fistfuls of money thrown at them as a reward for bringing us this beautiful-terrible ballet of bullets and revenge.

That's the short version. Join me behind the break for extended impressions, some of which may be very vaguely spoiler-y in nature (though I won't be discussing anything you couldn't find in an average press release for the movie.)

The list of the things that jumped out at me while I was watching the movie, and when I was thinking about it afterwards:

 - It still seriously weirds me out that Keanu Reeves can play such a great action hero (though John Wick is more of a action "hero.") It really shouldn't after the work he put into the Matrix movies, but my first exposure to him was Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, so it will always throw me a bit when he's kicking ass all over the place with little-to-no opposition.

 - This movie is relatively lean and mean. In my mind, a "good" action movie should be around 90 minutes. Action movies are, by their very definition, meant to be kinetic, active experiences. If your movie is starting to hover around the 2 hour mark, you're either trying to reinvent the wheel (which can be fine, but only a few have been able to pull this off) or you've lost your way (the most common scenario in my experience.) John Wick clocks in at 101 minutes of running time (according to it's IMDb site) and it benefits tremendously from that length.

 - The cast is one helluva collection of names. Not all of them are particularly "big" names, and a lot of them don't have sizable parts, but if you've watched as many movies and TV shows as I have there are plenty of "oh damn he/she is in this!" moments.

 - I feel like the plot of this movie is the result of a wager between two screenwriters. Imagine two guys sitting in a room, having the following conversation (I add a typewriter to really hammer the narrative home):

Writer A: "I just finished work on the script for this action movie. Jesus is that thing going to be a mess. It took everything I had just to make the sentences vaguely match up. Why is it so hard to give an action movie a decent plot?"

Writer B: "It's all in how you approach it. I can add pathos to anything. I am the motherfucking pathos master. Try me."

Writer A: "Alright smart guy, try to add pathos to this. And don't forget, this is an action movie so you need to take breaks from shoulder crying for explosions or your audience is going to look up a better movie on their phones."

Writer B: "Hit me."

Writer A: "The main character is a former hitman, now happily retired and married."

Writer B: "Easy so far."

Writer A: "He's brought out of retirement when some thugs harass him, steal his car, and kill his dog."

Writer B: "Alright, still not too hard."

Writer A: "Here's the challenge: you can't pull a Death Wish and jam the wife into the fridge. The entire crux of the 'set off' moment has to be the dog dying."

Writer B: "Okay...."

Writer A: "And you can't pull some deconstructive, ironic crap with it either. You have to play it totally straight. Basically I want you to take the primary motivator behind half of 'Black Hammer and White Lightning' and make it not hilariously stupid."

Writer B: *knuckle crack* "I'll get back to you."

When I read the description of the basic plot of John Wick in a review, I seriously thought part of this movie was going to be an ironic wink-nod to how thin the motivations behind most action movies are. Somehow the people working on this movie managed to take that premise and not only make it not ridiculous, but absolutely believable (in the context of the movie at least) and relatable.

 - That pathos ends up being important to the movie, because John Wick is a brutal killer. A fair subtitle for the movie would be "John Wick: He Will Shoot You In The Face." Unlike a lot of other action protagonists, it is shown very clearly that anyone that runs afoul of John Wick ends up in a bodybag. Many other movies show the protagonists either a) intentionally crippling opponents or b) inflicting general violence upon them, which may or may not be fatal (but should be enough to incapacitate.) Most of the time the "hero" is focused on taking enemies out, but they don't go out of their way to kill them.

Not so with John Wick. His policy seems to be "deader is better"; there are plenty of times where he has an enemy incapacitated, but just to be sure he puts a round or two in their face. Which makes sense given his background - when you're a hired killer it doesn't really behoove you to treat people opposing you with kid gloves - but it is shocking to see play out, over and over. It is tempered by showing very clearly that John doesn't hurt bystanders or folks who happen to get in the way. But if you are in his way, things will probably end badly for you.

 - There's a style of gunplay in John Wick that I haven't really seen before and I found it really remarkable. I'm no "gun guy," but I have seen a lot of action movies so I'm familiar with the body language used in gunfight scenes. The two poses you usually see are a shooter's pose - arms outstretched and braced - and what I'll call a freestyle pose - pretty much anything else that looks cool - usually various poses that fit into whatever choreography they came up with. John Wick makes great use out of both of these poses.

John Wick also uses a third pose: during several gunfight scenes Reeves pulls the gun up high and tight to his shoulder; almost as if he was firing a rifle but without actually bracing it on his body. It's visually remarkable, and it also fits really well with the close quarters gunfight sequences. That stance really facilitates his "shoot everyone in the face" agenda, and it's not something I'd seen before.

 - The last thing I'll mention about John Wick that struck me was the characterization of the protagonist. It walks a line that I'm sure is out there, but it isn't one that I can recall seeing recently.

John Wick is a former assassin, now retired from that profession after finding the love of his life. Alright, nothing new here; this is a very common way to have a badass character with a badass past that has distanced himself from it.

What I find interesting about John Wick is that, unlike some other examples that come to mind, is that he isn't particularly repentant or remorseful of his actions. You get the sense that he didn't particularly enjoy his work - especially when he returns to his old ways in his quest for revenge - but it wasn't some great guilt that drove him away from the work either.

It's an interesting take on that kind of character. The two other archetypes I'm familiar with are: the reformed killer (ex. Bill Munny from Unforgiven) who is shown the error of his ways and tries to forge a new life, and the repentant killer who gives up the life due to the weight of his sins. The lines blur between the definitions a bit, but the difference is in the source of salvation; one comes from without, the other, within.

John Wick is something closer to a machine that was unplugged. He didn't particularly enjoy his work, and it probably bothered him, but it also doesn't seem like it was a great burden either. You get the sense that it was a job (or a series of jobs) and he was just doing what he was good at. I can imagine his decision to get out of the profession was equally pragmatic; whether it was motivated by his desire for wedded bliss or just a decision one morning.

That is remarkable to me because of the character it creates for the protagonist. Unlike someone like Bill Munny, Wick doesn't particularly fight against his dark side; it's a switch he controls. When the movie kicks off, he turns the switch back to "on" and facilitates all kinds of destruction, and one can assume that after the conclusion of the movie he turned the switch right back to "off" and went home.

I'm not entirely sure what that means, if anything (it just as easily could mean that they didn't want to burn screen time on his regrets/repentance, for example,) but I thought the difference was interesting.


Just to reiterate: if you like action movies, watch John Wick. The first thought I had after seeing the movie was that I wanted to watch it again.

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