Reel Talk

The Expert World-Building of John Wick

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This may seem a little unvoncentional, talking about a movie that came out a couple years ago, and whose sequel is coming out in just a couple of weeks, but while I was at the theater today I saw the trailer for John Wick Chapter 2, and immediately had to come home and rewatch John Wick. And as soon as I was done watching John Wick, I knew that I had to write about it. In case you haven’t seen what was one of the most surprising and best action films of 2014, do yourself a favor and check it out. Because this movie is an absolute delight. I remember going into the theater to see this when it first came out, not really sure what it was going to be, but having heard that it was a really kick-ass action movie directed by a couple of former stunt-men that was full of some of the most exciting fight choreography that people had ever seen. Which is enough to bring me in. Trust me, I love a thoughtful and meditative drama about the human spirit, but if you tell me that I could also check out an absolutely insane action movie where Keanu Reeves shoots an absurd amount of people in increasingly impressive ways, I’m doing to be there in a heartbeat. I’m immensely excited for its sequel to come out in a couple of weeks, but before getting to that I’d like to talk a bit about John Wick.

This film is the story of a man named John Wick. It opens up with John burying his wife, who has just died from a long and seemingly drawn-out illness. The death of his wife had utterly crushed John, and he seems to have nothing to live for. Which is when he gets a delivery from his late wife. When it became clear that she was going to die she set it up to have a puppy delivered to John, with a note telling him not to give up on life, and to find something new to love. He’s a little unsure about the puppy, but he makes quick friends, and the next day take the little guy out to get supplies. However, when he stops to get some gas he comes across a group of young Russian guys, who start trying to act tough to him, trying to get him to sell them his car. John refuses, and heads home, not really thinking much about it. But that night the Russians break into John’s house, beat him up, steal his car, and kill his dog. They then leave, thinking that they’re completely fine, because it turns out the leader of the Russians is the son of a man named Viggo Tarasov, who runs the Russian Mafia in New York.

However, they are not okay, because John Wick isn’t just some random dude in the suburbs. He’s actually a retired hitman who was considered the most lethal and feared hitman of all time, and whose very name makes most members of the criminal underworld shake with fear. And they’ve just earned his ire. So John breaks into a secret vault in his basement and reclaims all of the gear that he once used in his old life, and dives back into the world of Crime. He starts trying to track down Viggo and his son Iosef, heading into a crazy hotel which is actually some sort of hallowed ground for criminals, a place where they can meet and mingle. And after getting the information he needs, John heads out to scour the city and get his revenge on the Tarasov family, all while a contract is put out on his head, drawing the ire of a group of assassins. And from there the rest of the film is basically just John Wick killing an absurd amount of Russian gangsters, working his way up the chain of command until he finally brings down Iosef and Viggo, getting some semblance of satisfaction from killing the men who killed his hope in life, all while finding himself inevitably brought back into the world of Crime.

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This films is an absolute joy to watch. It’s a beautifully crafted film, and really elevates what could have been a drag and by the numbers action movie. For quite some time we’ve been stuck in a phase of American action films that think realism is the way to go. They tend to be depressing, bitter, and full of gray-tones that just make them slogs to get through. And yet, this movie is bright, colorful, fun, and completely crazy. It’s full of some of the most inventive and ridiculous violence that you’ll ever see, and it does it all in absurd situations like some for of hot-tub night-club or a church that’s a front for the Russian mob. I maybe wouldn’t have thought of having former stunt-men direct a movie, but these two men know what they’re doing, and help craft some of the most followable and exciting action set-pieces in modern cinema. And while it looks gorgeous, it’s also full of some amazing performances, with actors who are just having the time of their lives.  It’s basically a live-action cartoon where everyone gets to be as badass as they want, and the actors in the film are clearly loving that opportunity, and fully taking advantage of it. Even Keanu Reeves, who is usually known or putting in bland and forgettable performances knocks it out of the park in this movie, wonderfully portraying this broken hitman who has had everything in life taken from him.

But the thing that most blew me away about this movie, and that has made it stick with me ever since I first saw it, was the amazing world-building that this film accomplishes. I remember leaving the theater when I first saw this movie and immediately researching it to see what it was based on. It had to be an adaptation of some crazy comic book I’d never heard of, or something like that. Because the world that John Wick finds himself being dragged back into is so fully formed and fascinating, that I had to believe this was just a part of an already established canon. But it’s not. This is a stand-alone story, that completely built its own mythos, and in a completely believable way.  The criminal world presented in this film is fascinating, with everyone seeming to know each other. Criminals in this film have their own form of currency, gold coins, and seem to have their own economy. If you have a body you need gotten rid of you can just call a weird little man in a trilby who will come buy and get rid of bodies for a coin. There’s a hotel in Manhattan that has a hidden speakeasy in it that’s a meeting ground for criminals, and a place where they can spend time together and mingle. There are rules that are steadfast, and are punishable. And it’s all established so well. Which is incredibly hard. This issue comes up the most with fantasy of sci-fi stories, where writers have this intricate world developed in their head, and they just want to vomit all of that information at the consumer. Which can be real turn-off. You were’t signing up for a fictitious history lesson, you just wanted a story. It’s a lot of work to weave world-building into a story, and John Wick handles it masterfully. You get a feel for the world and the way it works, and while there’s of course questions to be had, they don’t feel detrimental to the story. It’s a stand-alone piece of work that lets you fully experience this crazy world, and want more about it. Hopefully when the sequel comes out in a couple weeks it sticks with that formula, and doesn’t get too bogged down in it’s own mythology, but if this film is anything to go on, I feel like we’re in good hands.

John Wick was written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Staheleski & David Leitch, and released by Summit Entertainment, 2014.

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1 reply »

  1. The action scenes were good but they went on way too long. It was more or less Keanu using the same 3 moves over and over. I enjoyed the world building and kind of wished for more except this is an action movie, dammit! The movie shouldn’t be improved by having less action and yet I think that is the case here. It was still decent but didn’t even come close to the first one, which I only saw recently too and enjoyed due to its simplicity, just as you did.

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