There’s one offering that’s all but guaranteed to be on the menu at any decent enough restaurant: the steak-frites. Just steak and french fries, and maybe a side vegetable. I pretty much never order it, myself, but it’s always there as a fallback for diners too timid to order something more interesting or original. And it’s not even necessarily bad; some restaurants can make even something as basic as steak-frites delicious and quite enjoyable, even though most of the time the kitchen treats it as a regrettably necessary way of making money from a certain unadventurous clientèle.
John Wick is a very well-executed steak-frites of a movie. It’s a big, thick, juicy rib-eye of an action flick prepared with a minimum of narrative fuss and a maximum of choreographic and cinematographic talent. I don’t usually care for just-plain-action movies, but this one stands out.
It works despite — or maybe in this case because of — the bare minimum of plot. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former gang underworld hitman who left that world behind as the best of the best. He’s set for life, living in a large, isolated house and driving a classic Mustang. But when he refuses to sell his car to Iosef, a self-important prince of the Russian mob (Alfie Allen), the kid not only steals the car, but kills Wick’s dog — the one his wife arranged to be delivered after she died of cancer two days ago. As Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), can predict, Wick will kill not only Iosef, but every last man who stands in between them. And there’s going to be a lot of them.
Seriously, that’s about all the exposition we get, and it’s done within about fifteen minutes. The rest of the film is solid action; no twists, no turns, no long, boring, info-dump speeches. Reeves is the perfect blank for this part: Wick needs no personality or emotional drive beyond revenge, and he needs to look awesome in an immaculately tailored three-piece suit; Reeves fits both requirements like they were made for him.
The fight choreography — both the gunplay and the hand-to-hand sequences — is perfect. It’s crisp and snappy, and stuntmen-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski wisely choose long, clear shots so we can see every single move. This may be these first time in the chair, but they get seasoned action cinematographer Jonathan Sela to make the most of the dark, murky settings.
Even without a lot of explanation it’s clear that the movie posits a deeply textured world of gangsters and hitmen just underneath the surface of New York, like the secret hotel Continental, whose neutrality is scrupulously maintained by its owner (Ian McShane) and concierge (Lance Reddick). Or there’s the standard covert cleanup-crew for the piles and piles of bodies. Or the gold coins that serve as standard tokens for everything from drinks to favors. I’d be glad to see screenwriter Derek Kolstad spin out more stories using the same setting, even if they have little to do with Wick as a character.
Just as the best steak-frites might be found in old, wood-panelled steakhouses with overstuffed leather chairs, John Wick is at home in an exceedingly masculine environment. With the exception of the basically-absent Mrs. Wick, there’s only one woman Wick interacts with, and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) is pretty much the usual guy-but-with-breasts character we get in action movies anyway. Even Wick’s terrifying Russian nickname “Baba Yaga” is changed from a female Slavic storybook witch to “the boogeyman”, complete with male pronouns. This is a movie that is designed for a very traditionally masculine sort of taste
I do want to give credit, though, for the choice not to shove Wick’s wife into a refrigerator. Yes, her death is part of his motivation, but it’s not the direct cause. She is not killed in order to drive him into action; she dies, and someone ignorantly fails to respect that sorrow. It’s a fine distinction, but I think it makes a difference. Just because you’re making a hypermasculine power fantasy doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy, lazy, or crude about it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.