“What happened, John? We were professionals, civilized,” grumbles a Russian mobster toward the end of John Wick, an underworld fantasy that grafts crisp action on to Rian Johnson-esque world-building, producing one of the more fully realized shoot-’em-up flicks in recent memory. Co-directed by veteran stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, Wick reconfigures the badass, laconic cool of crime and action movies past to create a colorful, remarkably self-contained vision of a world made of dominos falling into disorder.
Viewers take it for granted that most action movies unfold in a parallel reality of shoot-outs and fiery car chases, but Wick’s script—by Derek Kolstad, who wrote the solid, no-frills, direct-to-video The Package—distinguishes itself by carefully defining the boundaries of its universe, in which criminals have their own currency (gold bullion, naturally) and Manhattan is home to boutique hotels that cater exclusively to hitmen. This is an underground culture of members-only nightclubs and service entrances, with no morals, but plenty of rules, a bit like the Wayfarer-wearing bloodsucker societies of vampire fiction.
“Nothing personal; it’s strictly business,” goes the old crime movie cliché, which Wick pushes to the edge of absurdity. Here, the eponymous ex-hitman (Keanu Reeves, perfectly cast as a blank slate) sets out to take down a whole crime syndicate because the big boss’ bratty son killed his dog—a violation of the terms of Wick’s exit deal. The cast is thick with ringers—Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters—who look good in tailored suits and trench coats; each puts his own memorable spin on the archetype of the natty professional crook.
Unsurprisingly, Jean-Pierre Melville is invoked through the name of the nightclub that provides the backdrop for one of the movie’s major set-pieces: The Red Circle. (Another important referent: the clean, white linework of Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, subject of a book Wick owns.) It’s all completely artificial and deliberately vague, full of tactful coded lingo (“reservations” for body disposal, for instance) and comic juxtapositions of the violent and the urbane, like the zippered garment bag in which Wick transports his bulletproof vest.
Leitch and Stahelski’s staging of the movie’s action scenes converts this abstract cool into kinetic energy, combining point-blank gunfire with acrobatic dodges, rolls, and jabs. Like Reeves’ own directorial debut, the martial arts flick Man Of Tai Chi, Wick is in part a showcase for practical stunt work, albeit one made with a bit more flash. Silhouettes—a cop seen through a door, a goon through opaque glass—are a motif, transforming characters into backlit shapes.
Michael Mann’s Collateral comes to mind, especially during the Red Circle sequence, though Leitch and Stahelski favor a less impressionistic style, using clean, wide compositions and pivoting camera movements to emphasize the finesse of their performers. Their use of Kaleida’s sparse, slinky “Think”—one of the most effective and eccentric sound track choices in a recent action movie—underscores the sense that what the viewer is watching is essentially a very loud and bloody dance piece.