At the very least, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick has the good sense to get most of its brief backstory out of the way within the first 10 minutes. The directors give glimpses of the titular retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) saying goodbye to his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who died unexpectedly from cancer, intercut among a fleeting vision of John Wick’s life without her, but there’s little else explained about the man. Other characters speak of his legacy, which includes killing what sounds like half of the global population in his heyday, but the character, and the story, is always rooted in the present. Though this tactic doesn’t totally excuse John Wick’s thematic thinness and tendency to embrace the action genre’s more obnoxious elements, from anything-goes editing to repetition of story and shots, it gives a crucial air of no-nonsense to a proudly nonsensical film.
Even the setup is all business. When a group of Russian hoods, led by Alfie Allen’s Iosef Tarasov, break into Wick’s home to steal his cherry 1969 Mustang, they also take the chance to kill his puppy. Thus begins Wick’s rampage, as Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), a crime lord and Wick’s previous employer, sends what amounts to a small army to take out Wick, whom Viggo refers to as the “boogeyman.” Both being former stunt coordinators, Leitch and Stahelski have a preternatural ability to frame action sequences that get the full measure of the chaos and bloodshed. A lot of their shots go noticeably longer than those you’d find in other action flicks of this ilk, and these long takes, along with some elegant tracking shots, pull-backs, and push-ins, have a tendency to mirror Wick’s concentration and tactical intellect, seeing the whole of these eruptive environs with a welcome clarity.
But the directors burden their film with a borderline insufferable soundtrack of cock rock, and at least one Marilyn Manson song that’s repeated ad nauseam. There’s little substance to John Wick, even if it makes brief allusions to the corruptive power of money and violence. Derek Kolstad’s script allows for a moderated sense of self-awareness and humor in many exchanges, even if his dialogue remains thoroughly clunky and obvious, if passably so. The film ultimately doesn’t go full tilt with its parody of action movies the way, say, Shoot ’Em Up did, and there’s a consistent sense that it’s a little too content to just be a more-than-competently-made B movie, of the Nimrod Antal variety rather than the Sam Fuller brand.
Indeed, a little ambition would have gone a long way toward making John Wick a new genre staple. Leitch and Stahelski stack their film with an impressive assortment of character actors, from Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane to Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters, but they’re utilized for little more than bit parts. This lends the film a certain measure of personality, but the filmmakers keep to the water’s edge in giving any sense of personal detail to the circuit of professional killers that Wick belongs to. They’re just men and women who are skilled at murder, people who comically barter with gold coins and know to give a nice tip to their corpse cleanup crew. It’s enough to make John Wick engaging for the entirety of its runtime, but not enough to make it anything more than a totem to style over substance.