Possibly now to be referred to as John Wick Chapter 1, this film was released in 2014 and saw Keanu Reeves taking on the titular role and co-starred Michael Nyqvist, with Ian McShane, and John Leguizamo. The sequel has been released as I write this so with a bit of luck if you just scroll down that review will be following this one within a few days.
I have been a fan of Reeves for years and enjoyed his martial arts prowess as Neo in The Matrix films, and whilst some of the roles he has done post-Neo have been good like John Constantine in Constantine, others have basically passed me by, like…er…49 Samurai (?)…I think it was called. But in John Wick I think that he may have found a character that could be more than a match for The One himself.
Still, let me slow down a smidge and let you know what is going on…
John Wick loses his wife Helen to an unspecified illness, and in the wake of her death, he receives a puppy named Daisy that she sent to him to help him cope with her loss. John connects with the puppy and the two of them spend the day driving around together in his 1969 Mustang. Whilst at a petrol station, the group of Russian gangsters led by Iosef (Alfie Allen) insists on buying the car but John refuses. Iosef follows John home and that night attacks him, beats him up, steals the car and kills Daisy when she tries to protect him.
Taking the car to a chop shop Iosef tries to get the car’s details changed but the garage’s owner Aurelio (Leguizamo) recognises the car, punches Iosef and throws him out of his shop. Iosef’s father, Viggo (Nyqvist), learns that Aurelio hit his son and demands an explanation, it is then that he is told Iosef stole John Wick’s car…
Viggo immediately beats and berates his son’s actions, because John Wick was his former best assassin that gave up that life for Helen. Viggo agreed to allow John out of his criminal world if he killed all of Viggo’s rivals in a single night…John succeeded and was allowed to retire in peace.
Viggo attempts to reason with John but it is too late, because John Wick has unearthed his past and is seeking revenge against the man who took his car and killed his dog, and will kill anyone who gets in his way…
Okay, now if I’m honest one of the first things that drew me into this film was the fact that it seemed as though John Wick was launching a crusade of bloody vengeance because someone killed his dog, and that reason seemed so petty that it was hilarious. However, the story does have a little more to it than that, yes, John Wick is slaughtering gangers left-right-and-centre because one of them stole his car and killed his dog, but the dog was a gift from his deceased wife to help him cope with her loss. Therefore he is not just going after someone because they killed his dog. Now I used to be one of those people that would just say “it’s just a dog” when seeing someone risk their lives to rescue a dog, however, that was before I owned a dog myself. Yes, before I constructed Abbie I sometimes got lonely being on my ship so I have a German Sheppard-Rottweiler-cross and he is lovely. If someone tried to hurt him, believe me they would be vaporised in short order, so there are certainly worst reasons to get revenge on someone.
As the film progresses it keeps it’s tongue very firmly in its cheek, the members of Viggo’s organisation know exactly who John is and some of them are given the “night off” by John and they do not hesitate to leave him to do what he is there to do. As they know if they don’t he will kill them. Viggo even says to Iosef, “it isn’t what you did, it’s who you did it to”, and whilst his father tries to get him off the hook Viggo knows that there is going to be nothing he can do to protect his son from the man coming after him. Fortunately the film knows when not to take itself seriously and keeps the action moving at a break-neck pace throughout. The fight scenes are superbly choreographed, and whilst John is a serious badass, he is not invincible so does get hurt during the course of the film.
The Continental Hotel is also a particular highlight with the brilliant Lance Reddick portraying the concierge. The Hotel caters specifically to the criminal underworld and doesn’t allow any business to be conducted on the premises (basically criminals can’t kill one another there) so it serves as a safe haven. I love the idea that there might be places like the Continental in real life that appear on the surface to be up-market hotels but actually deal with the criminal underworld but have a strict set of rules about the clientele leaving their business dealings outside.
Basically the film does seem like another mindless shoot ‘em up on par with, well Shoot ‘Em Up, but there is one huge difference that makes this film stand out. There is a scene when John has been captured and is tied up on a warehouse. Once again Viggo tries to reason with him, and tells him that he will return his car. But it is the fact that they killed his dog that John cannot forgive. It is in this scene that I truly think I saw Reeves acting because when he is talking about the fact that the dog was left to him by his wife, and Viggo’s son took that connection away from him, you feel his pain. John Wick gave up his life to be with the woman he loved. A woman that was taken from him by natural causes, he was lost without her, but that little dog, Daisy, gave him something to love and was a connection to the woman he had lost. Iosef took that hope away from him, and now John is going to kill Iosef, no matter what. I have never felt actually emotionally connected to a character Reeves has portrayed. When Trinity died (spoiler) in The Matrix Revolutions I didn’t feel Neo’s sorrow because he basically gets straight up and goes off to fight Smith. Here John Wick carries that pain and sorrow with him the entire film, and the only way he knows how to cope with everything that matters to him being taken away is to kill those responsible. It makes Wick far more human than other characters that may have a tragic past or whatever but that is basically just an excuse to start shooting and not stop till the credits roll.
I was familiar with Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in which he played Mikael Blomkvist. In that film he was a good guy, whereas here he is portraying Russian Gang Leader Viggo who is naturally a bad guy. However, he is one of the smartest bad guys in cinema history because he tries to talk John down on several occasions, but he eventually realises that John won’t stop until Iosef is dead, and he is going to have to choose between his own life and the life of his son. Again he is not a stereo-typical villain and is far more human than other bad guys who have no redeeming qualities at all.
Naturally there is no such thing as a perfect film and there are a couple of downsides to John Wick. The first is that he doesn’t have much time to bond with Daisy. On the afternoon of his wife’s funeral Daisy is delivered, and he spends one day entire day with her before she is killed. Personally I would have preferred it if he’d had more time to really bond with her and that could have given a more emotional impact when she died.
So John not having much time to bond with Daisy is a downside, and the other one is the dog he chooses at the end. So when everyone is dead and his vengeance is complete he stumbles into a rescue centre and chooses a pit-bull puppy to replace Daisy. Like I said I have a dog with a lovely temperament, he is great company, and you can reach into his mouth, take a toy he is chewing on out, and he won’t even growl at you. He just looks at you as if to say “I was chewing that” so you give it back. In my opinion, pit-bull’s are not nice dogs, they are very aggressive, and in my opinion are not as handsome as a Rottweiler.
So my two criticisms are…John doesn’t have much time to bond with Daisy and I don’t agree with the choice of dog John picks at the end – that’s it. So if that are the only two drawbacks to this entire film then it should be pretty obvious that my Thumb is Up, this is a great action film and I’m eagerly awaiting the next film.
10/10 – John Wick is truly an awesome character, he is a stone-cold badass that is still human with a very emotional motive for seeking revenge against Iosef and anyone else that gets in his way. The supporting cast are all excellent. The film is an absolute joy to watch and I honestly cannot wait to see where the story goes in John Wick Chapter 2
Not surprisingly John Wick Chapter 2 follows on after John Wick which was released in 2014, Keanu Reeves once again steps into the titular role with Lance Reddick reprising the role as the Continental’s concierge. Ian McShane also returns and Laurence Fishbourne joins the cast. This marks the first time that he and Reeves have worked on a film together since The Matrix trilogy.
I gave John Wick my rare 10/10 rating so naturally any sequel was going to have some pretty big shoes to fill, but I liked the character of John Wick and the world in which he was trying so hard to escape was one that seemed interesting. I had thought that John Wick was a pretty self-enclosed story, John goes after the people who killed his dog and stole his car, the film ends when that mission for vengeance is complete.
The logical question that must then be asked is: if John’s story of revenge is over, then where does the sequel go??
This is a question that I will answer later, for the moment, let me bring you up to speed.
Approximately four days after the events of John Wick, John tracks down his car to a chop shop owned by Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), brother of Viggo and uncle of Iosef (the main antagonists from the first film). After a brutal confrontation with Tarasov’s men, John spares Tarasov himself by declaring “peace” then takes his damaged car and heads home.
Soon afterwards as John is returning the evidence of his former life to the concrete below his basement, he is visited by Santino D’Antonio (Ricardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime lord. It transpires that years ago John swore a “Marker” to D’Antionio, basically an unbreakable blood debt that D’Antonio now wants returned. John refuses because he is “retired”. To refuse to honour a Marker is unheard of, and D’Antonio attacks John’s home effectively burning it to the ground with John (and his dog) surviving.
Winston (Ian McShane) the owner of the Continental reminds John that if he doesn’t do as D’Antonio asks he is violating one of only two laws in the criminal world, no business to be conducted on Continual grounds and a Marker must be honoured. Reluctantly John seeks out D’Antonio and asks what he wants in exchange for the Marker John owes him, D’Antonio informs John that his sister has a seat at the “High Table” and D’Antonio wants her assassinated so he can take the seat for himself.
John agrees and travels to Rome where he stays at another Continental hotel. He buys various weapons and a bullet proof suit to assist him in his task. He breaches the security and enters Gianna’s bathroom. She recognises him and knows why he is there. As she decides that she will end her life on her own terms, she slices her own wrists, and dies in her bathtub as John holds her hand. He then shoots her through the head. Leaving the bathroom he is recognised by Gianna’s bodyguards and engages in a bloody shootout with them, but then D’Antonio’s people appear and also try to kill him in order to avenge his sister’s murder.
John returns to New York and goes after D’Antonio in revenge for betraying him, but along the way he must deal with Gianna’s bodyguard who is also out for blood…
Now one of the things I liked about John Wick was that it was a pretty enclosed story, John goes after a man who killed the dog his wife left him following her death and stole his beloved car. He killed the people responsible and got himself another dog. Job done, story over, but obviously he was too popular a character to leave in retirement.
The trouble with this film is John is pulled out of retirement by a man he owes a blood debt, a man who then firebombs his house to get his attention, John does what is required of him but he is just about the most obvious assassin in history. Everyone in Gianna’s entourage knows who he is and when they spot him, Cassian (her personal bodyguard) asks if he is “working”, he replies “Afraid so” and the shoot out begins. D’Antonio said he needed John Wick specifically because he is a ghost, and indeed he does slip into Gianna’s bathroom unnoticed but he basically just strolls out of the front door after she is dead. If he can slip in unnoticed then why the crap doesn’t he slip out unnoticed???? Plus D’Antonio goes after him because he is honour bound to avenge his sister’s murder, but he calls John back because he is the best, so again, why go to the trouble of recruiting John Wick if he was planning on betraying him???
In addition, Gianna commits suicide rather than let John murder her, so why does John shoot her in the head?? Surely he could have simply slipped out again and she would have been found by her bodyguards who would have assumed that she committed suicide. No assassin, no murder, just a woman that chose to end her own life. D’Antonio gets her seat at the “High Table” and John’s debt is cleared. Job done. So why does John stroll out, confront a bodyguard he knows will recognise him, and admit that he was the one responsible for Gianna’s death?? It makes no sense.
In the first film John is out for revenge for personal reasons, here he is out for revenge because he was betrayed by a man that should have known better. In the first film Viggo tried repeatedly to make peace with John but there was nothing he could do because his son had killed John’s dog and taken his car, so there was no talking him down. Here if D’Antonio had let him to his job, and not tried to kill him, then John would have walked away leaving him alive. Why do villains always do this?? They hire their best assassin to do a job for them and then attempt to betray them, logically the next best person to send after your best assassin is your second best assassin. Why would you get your second best assassin to try and kill your best assassin?? Why not send your second best assassin to do a job and then get your best assassin to kill them once they have completed their mission?? I have never understood why villains drag retired hitmen out of their exile and get them to do one last mission before betraying them.
Laurence Fishburne is in the film but his is barely in it, he portrays a man that John once spared, after slicing his throat John told him he could either keep pressure on the wound or shoot John in the back. Now he is the Bowery King, the leader of the homeless in the city, and aids John in his mission to get close to D’Antonio.
This time around John Wick isn’t the same unstoppable killing machine he was in the first film, his moves seem more wooden, and less natural. Perhaps you could argue this is because he is still injured after the events of the first film, but his moves didn’t seem as smooth and flowing as they did in John Wick. The choreography of the fights doesn’t seem as good as it did before. Reeves seems more clumsy here, and whilst the first film kept its tongue in its cheek, this one seems to take itself a bit too seriously.
The main thing that I took away from this film was it was definitely the middle film in a trilogy, because it doesn’t resolve anything. Unlike the first film which was a nice little self-enclosed story, this one leaves everything open, John is on the run, and everyone is after him. I like films which continue a story but this one exists to set up the next one, and whilst the original film had a ruthlessly efficient hitman coming out of retirement to avenge the death of his dog and theft of his car, this one has the aforementioned hitman returning to fulfil a debt they owe to someone, then being betrayed and going after their betrayer. That is a story we have seen countless times. A man seeking revenge for the theft of his car and killing of his dog, that was unique, but John Wick Chapter 2 has returned to more traditional waters of revenge stories which is a shame.
The expansion of the lore of the film’s universe is interesting and the idea of the Continental and the people associated with it is expanded on here, which is really good, unfortunately there is just too much that is…honestly…mundane. Legions of hitmen come after John Wick, and he kills them all whilst working his way back to the one who betrayed him, so far, so generic…I wanted another great film but I was ultimately left disappointed. Considering I gave the first film a 10/10 this one did have its work cut out and whilst expecting it to be as brilliant as the first was obviously unfair, it could have carved out a niche for itself, but it just doesn’t.
How John copes without his wife has nothing to do with this story and his character doesn’t evolve in any way. He hasn’t returned to the life because without his wife he is lost. He hasn’t come back in because it is the only life he knows. He is drawn back in by a debt he owes to someone else and then is stabbed in the back by the man who recruited him in the first place…yawn…
The fights scenes are not as good as the first, the motivations are not as good as the first, and the film is not as good as the first. Perhaps John Wick Chapter 3 will raise the bar back to the levels of the original but I doubt it. As far as John Wick Chapter 2 goes I cannot rate it any higher than average. Man on Fire was a better revenge story, Taken was a better revenge story, and so I have to give this film my Meh rating and leave my Thumb Horizontal.
6.5/10 – Honestly this film was little more than average, John Wick is slower this time, and the villain is just your typical moron. There was plenty that they could have done. I would have liked to have seen John’s character decline as the loss of his wife lays increasingly heavily on him, drawing him slowly back into the life because it is the only world he knows and understands. Sadly we got a by the numbers revenge flick that couldn’t leave itself more open for a sequel if it tried.