You may have noticed a spate of stories recently about how our country’s increasingly-militarized police force has developed a habit of killing people’s dogs during botched home raids. Five years ago, I would have felt detached disgust over the stories. But in the interim I briefly became the caretaker of a dog for the first time myself (technically, my girlfriend got the dog, but that sort of makes you co-caretaker by default). Now the visceral fury I’ve experienced reading those stories has surprised even me.
I bring this up because the inciting incident of John Wick – in which the titular hitman (Keanue Reeves) goes on a mass killing spree against his former employer – is that some goons for the Russian mob kill his dog. John responds by coming out of retirement and cutting a swath of destruction through New York’s criminal underworld. His target is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), a dipshit who leads a home invasion to steal John’s muscle car, resulting in the aforementioned canine fatality. Unfortunately, that dipshit is also the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the Russian mob’s resident New York City overlord. So just about every disposable goon in the Big Apple comes out of the woodwork to get in John’s way.
There’s something powerful in the idea that the death of such a meek and gentle creature would be the occasion for unleashing this kind of apocalyptic fury. John Wick doesn’t do anything further with that idea – instead, it just leaves it there for the audience to chew on – but it plays the effect well.
Of course, that isn’t all that’s going on. Flashbacks and other clues reveal that after laying the groundwork for Viggo’s empire, John retired from criminal life, settled down, and married. His wife then dies of an unnamed illness, and the dog, Daisy, is her parting gift to John, delivered to his doorstep the night after the funeral. That makes Daisy the last shred of hope connecting John to a normal life, and leads to the two key scenes that emotionally anchor the movie: the first, when John reads the note his wife enclosed with Daisy, and the second, when John finally gets the chance to explain to a befuddled Viggo just what that dog meant to him. Overall, the character is a somewhat sardonic force of single-minded purpose – a role to which Reeves, with his limited range, is well suited. But those scenes require him to hit two extreme notes of utter grief and all-consuming rage, respectively, and Reeves pulls off both with aplomb.
All that’s required of Allen – who also plays Theon on HBO’s Game of Thrones – is to do oily, sniveling and cretinous (a role in which he regrettably seems to be rapidly getting typecasted) and he does it about as well as anyone could ask. Willem Dafoe shows up as Marcus, a one-time friend and rival hitman whom Viggo hires to kill John, and who gets the plot’s one modest twist. Then there’s Adrianne Palicki (Yay Friday Night Lights alumnus!) as yet another assassin, and Bridget Moynahan doing one very good scene with Reeves as a friendly and helpful bartender. Ian McShane also gets to do the standard Ian McShane thing as Winston, the proprietor of a hotel in downtown that serves as a kind of high-class-hostel-cum-demilitarized-zone for New York criminality.
But the story’s most interesting and complex character is Nyqvist’s Viggo. He obviously loathes his son while holding a real respect for John, and seems hellbent on protecting the former from the latter out of a sense of abstract duty or cultural obligation. This forces Viggo into some increasingly impossible choices and dark moral compromises over the course of the film, leading he man to become increasingly unhinged.
Co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski know what sort of product they’re delivering here, and render the film’s look in shadowy but clearly defined hues of black, grey and slate blue. The closing credits are rendered in a garish neon that’s an obvious pulp noir throwback. They also have some fun with the fearsomeness of John’s reputation. After Aurelio (John Leguizamo) finds out what Iosef’s done, he slugs the kid and gets a furious call from Viggo. But as soon as Aurelio drops John’s name, Viggo simply replies with a chagrined “Oh” and hangs up. So many befuddled mobsters declare “It was just a fucking dog!” over the course of the movie that it becomes a grim joke.
This sets up a problem for the filmmakers, as their hero cannot be so superhuman as to destroy all tension. John is a remarkably precise killer, and the long takes during a pursuit through a nightclub are small marvels of orchestrated violence. The first time John is successfully wounded is almost a bit of a shock, but the sheer volume of thugs makes his gradual deterioration plausible. By the time he goes toe-to-toe with Viggo, you can believe John’s in some legitimate danger.
Ultimately, John Wick is a film of low ambition. It’s such a stripped-down genre exercise that it’s sometimes like the filmmakers are cutting bone rather than fat from the story. By the end, the film feels more like a wind-up toy expending the last of its kinetic energy than an actual story leading to a narrative climax. And I confess the gargantuan size of the body count left me a bit morally exhausted.
Still, the film knows what it is and what it wants to do, and does it reasonably well.