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'John Wick' succeeds by avoiding excess (and being really fun)

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John Wick
David Lee/Lionsgate

So it may be strange to say this about a movie that consists of Keanu Reeves wrecking dudes across an entire city for an hour and a half, but John Wick feels surprisingly small for a modern action movie. And it’s such a great feeling.

First of all, if you haven’t seen John Wick, go see it now. There’s not a whole lot to be spoiled, really—but it’s simply way more fun to watch cold. The movie is totally worth your time. With that out of the way, let’s dig in on what makes John Wick feel so exceptionally good.

Most modern American action movies have this frustrating tendency to go big. Huge explosions, massive stakes, and loads of special effects. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—Fast 5 should be taught in film schools as a case study in how to go ridiculously big while remaining really entertaining—but action movies now have to compete with science fiction and superhero stories that are also aggressively getting bigger and bigger. In order to compete, action movies have to get smaller, lest they be drowned in the noise.

“But sir,” you politely object, “how is a movie where Keanu Reeves wipes out a crime lord’s entire personal army across various locations in any way small? Surely you’re referring to small in the same way Die Hard, the greatest action movie ever made, is small, correct? Or perhaps the way that modern classic The Raid, is small, right?”

First of all, I applaud your excellent taste in cinema. The Raid is, in fact, one of the crowning achievements of this decade and should never be remade. But yes, you would have a point: John Wick isn’t all that small. There are explosions and car fights and a number of lavish set pieces. But they’re all there with the ultimate purpose of delivering what we call “dope action” in the biz. You know what isn’t in the movie? Hardly anything else. “Small,” for our purposes, really just means “devoid of excess.”

Probably the best way to  illustrate this is to discuss one of the best bits of the movie: its ridiculous mythology. See, in John Wick, organized crime is a business and like any business, there is a governing body, with rules. There’s a hotel in New York called The Continental—it’s pretty much a country club for people who make a living off crime. This country club, and those affiliated with it, use an entirely different currency—everyone that’s connected to the underworld in John Wick pays each other in gold coins, not cash. The Continental also imposes a code on its members—namely, you leave your work at the door and don’t kill your fellow assassins that are staying under the same roof. There is very clearly this hilarious-yet-totally-sensible backstory to John Wick that isn’t ever really commented on—and the movie is so much better for it. Excess, you see?

The film dispatches with similar narrative necessities with equal ease. Motivation? Okay. Mobsters kill the wrong guy’s dog. Next? Who’s John Wick?  That’s silly. Everyone knows John Wick. Don’t you see how scared they are? Is he that good? Why are you asking so many questions? Just watch him suplex this dude.

But the razor-sharp focus on action would all be for naught if the action wasn’t any good. And boy, howdy, is it good. It may sound odd, but the best word to describe the action in John Wick is clean. The shots are clean. The choreography is clean. The acting is clean. There’s a remarkable efficiency and clarity on display here—no shaky cam, no absurd death-defying stunts other than the statistical improbability of one man’s preternatural talent for delivering headshots without receiving any. The film’s verve and confidence are probably what contributed to its absolutely stacked cast—alums from shows like The Wire and Deadwood and Friday Night Lights all make appearances, and seem to be having an absolute blast.

And Keanu’s acting? Not a problem in the least.

Really, the biggest challenge facing John Wick is the inevitable sequel it will get if it makes enough money (it probably will). Will said hypothetical sequel remain smart and restrained as this film? Who knows. Not important. That’s just excess.

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