The sympathetic hit man is an interesting film trope. Clearly being asked to side with criminals is not unusual in cinema but paid assassins are hardly frustrated idealists struggling to get by in an oppressive society are they? They are remorseless, dangerously violent sociopaths. When you think about it, it is odd that we are expected to (and so readily do) take their side. Vincent Vega, Jason Bourne, Martin Blank? These people are not antiheroes, they are amoral murderers. What’s that Leon? No women, no children? That’s your rule? Gosh, how we admire your ethics. You are just a real stand up guy!
Take this new kid on the glock John Wick. He’s killed hundreds of people, no doubt including many who’s only crime was standing up to gangsters or not paying protection money, but he fell in love and got a puppy so he’s alright really. Still, in movie world they are cool and in the end I guess it’s no weirder than kids having a pirate themed birthday party.
John Wick is particularly cool too, possibly the coolest character Keanu Reeves has played. The part also nicely fits his individual acting style like The Matrix, Speed and Bill & Ted and unlike almost everything else in his thirty year career (including Point Break). The premise here is very simple; John is a legendary trigger man but he chose to leave the game some time ago. Then some young hood with poor knowledge of local history and family connections that make him think he is untouchable messes with him. Of course John Wick has a short fuse and pretty quickly the whole thing leads into a spiral of violent retribution.
Clearly when I say the premise is simple I could just as easily describe it as thin. That doesn’t have to matter though, Lost in Translation doesn’t have the most involving plot but it is still a great film. Not that John Wick is that kind of film. When this guy meets people in hotel bars he doesn’t sit and have soul searching conversations with them or sing karaoke, he shoots them. (If you want a hit man movie that is a brooding character piece check out George Clooney in The American.) The thing that carries this film is not the dialogue, it’s the action. There are any number of action flicks with great smack downs though; what sets John Wick apart is the close quarter gun play.
Normally you get people taking pop shots at one another from across the street, or at the very least from opposite sides of a room, but when they get within punching and kicking distance the hand cannons are inexplicably discarded. John, on the other hand, is not the kind of guy who brings a knife to a gun fight. When his fist is raised to the bad guys, it is wrapped round a pistol. What first time director/seasoned stunt coordinator, Chad Stahelski, manages to do is take all the ballet of a well choreographed punch up and translate it to a shoot out, which is something we haven’t really seen before.
Inevitably this takes quite a lot of reloading and actually this is another thing you don’t see so much of in films. Either the bullets last for ever or the last one has been spent right before the kill shot and no one thought to bring any more clips. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this makes John Wick more realistic but it does make it slightly more feasible.
The film has had mixed reviews. Sight & Sound and The Guardian both found it shallow and humourless but other publications, such as Empire Magazine, The Independent and The Times, congratulated it for its style. I liked it. It has a great atmosphere and some nice ideas (the hit man hotel in particular), is well paced and builds quickly to a crescendo that is nicely sustained. It does run out of steam a little by the end but the action is exciting and compelling. Personally I’d take this over widely celebrated examples of the genre, such as The Raid, any day.
A sequel is already on the way and this second movie will need to find a tricky balance; adding a more in depth story while not over complicating the effectively straight forward premise. For now though we have a fun movie with a cool hero who’s dubious morals we are more than happy to overlook once again.
Is this one for the kids?
No, when John Wick kills people it is 15 rated slaughter not 12A rated slaughter.
The Ripley Factor:
At first glance the women don’t come off too badly in this film. It is the ‘hero’s’ love of a lady that initially pacified him so clearly she was a good role model and of all the people he battles it is a woman who gives him the hardest fight.
If I put both of these characters, the deceased partner Helen and professional killer Ms. Perkins, through the Ripley Factor questions then the picture is not so great.
– Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men?
Helen – definitely, in fact she no longer exists by the time the narrative starts. Being dead before the film actually begins is the ‘woman in the fridge principle’ taken to extremes.
Ms. Perkins – yes, the way Wick deals with her says much about his character.
– Are the women in the film believable as real people?
Helen – she only appears in flashback so we don’t get the chance to know her enough to judge.
Ms. Perkins – not even slightly.
– Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism?
Helen – she’s barely even included in the film.
Ms. Perkins – absolutely.
– Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film?
Helen – no
Ms. Perkins – and no but one out of four is not great.