'John Wick' a Satisfying Revenge Tale

'John Wick'—Dir. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (Summit Entertainment)— 4 Stars

Why do audiences have an enduring obsession with crime movies? The Mafia has given way to cartels, triads, yakuza, and post-Soviet brotherhoods, but there is still a cinematic fascination with organizations and individuals that exist outside and against the law. “John Wick,” a high-octane revenge fantasy directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, goes a long way towards giving us an answer.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a hitman who has reformed his life after marrying Helen (Bridget Moynahan). When Helen dies, he is plunged deep into depression. His wife’s last gift to him, a beagle puppy named Daisy, is the only thing that gets him out of bed every day. Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of Wick’s former boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), breaks into Wick’s home, beats him bloody, steals his car, and kills Daisy. The enraged Wick sets out to settle accounts.

John Wick
Keanu Reeves stars in "John Wick."

The writing is as over-the-top as one would expect and hope for a movie about Keanu Reeves killing people for murdering his dog. Dialogue is simple, sparse, and well-punctuated with laugh breaks, full of utterances that would populate speech-bubbles in comic books. “John Wick’s not the boogeyman,” says Viggo at one juncture. “He’s the man you send to kill the fucking boogeyman.”


The acting matches the screenplay. Expressions and line delivery are cartoonish but effective. Leading man Reeves’s lines are short and few, maximizing the effect of his peculiar, breathy technique, the oddity of which tends to grate heavily during long monologues. Nyqvist’s Viggo is simple but relatable, a man whose son has made a grave error but who wishes to protect him all the same.

Leitch and Stahelski have both worked extensively as stuntmen, and as a result it is no wonder that the movie’s action sequences are superb. The stunt choreography is brutal yet surreally graceful—Wick moves in exactly the way one would expect a top hitman to move. The camerawork and editing manage to convey the complicated happenings without the visual confusion that is typical of so many modern action films. A sequence in which Wick chases Iosef through a nightclub is especially notable: strobe lights highlight the distinct expressions of fear and desperation on Iosef’s face and the panicked motions of the surrounding clubgoers. Shaky cam, generally the cancer of modern cinema, is used sparingly and subtly.

The movie’s weaknesses are inextricable from its strengths. This is a movie about people killing each other. It has no frills and no pretensions. Clever dialogue and labyrinthine plot are not the point of “John Wick,” and anyone coming to it with an expectation of cerebral stimulation will be disappointed. This is an old-fashioned revenge movie in a slick, modern-Hollywood body, and on those terms, it is incredibly successful.

And this idea—revenge—is why gangster movies still resonate with us. The underworld is a place where there is still a possibility of getting real satisfaction from one’s enemies, where real justice is still possible. Civil society is supposed to enforce equal justice, but deep down, we are lingeringly afraid that the system will not work for us, and the wrongs done us will go unpunished. We would all like to be John Wick: able to take vengeance for ourselves, unimpeded either by the bureaucracy of the law or by our own weakness.

Perhaps “John Wick” is not high art, but it does not aim to be. It is successful for what it is: a stark reflection of one of our most closely-held fantasies, the dream that we could thrive on our own strength, skill, and luck, the dream of self-sufficiency in an uncertain universe. Delivered in a sleek package, this resonant and unembellished theme makes “John Wick” one of the most satisfying films this season.

—Crimson staff writer Jude D. Russo can be reached at


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