John Wick should actually be called Jon Wick — since the hero's name, as confirmed in dialogue is Jonathan. Getting its own title wrong is somehow emblematic of the loopy, unapologetic disconnection from reality which characterises this excellent thriller.
It is the kind of movie where, when a cute puppy is introduced at the beginning, you know it will be dead by the third reel. But, uniquely in my experience, the death of the pet is not here solely to signal how nasty the bad guys are, or pile up menace on the good guys. Rather it is a trigger for revenge, and the direct cause of everything that follows.
The eponymous John Wick is very effectively played by Keanu Reeves, last seen committing seppuku for no apparent reason in 47 Ronin.
Poor John, or Jon, Wick has had a hard time lately. He's just lost his beloved wife to a lingering illness. Knowing the end was nigh, she thoughtfully bought the aforementioned cute puppy to see her husband through his period of grieving. The dog poo hits the fan when Wick drives his vintage Mustang to the gas station and attracts the attention of a young Russian hood — son of a powerful gangster — who covets his ride. Wick won't sell him the car, so the hood steals it, beating Wick unconscious and killing his dog in the process.
The young hood is played by Alfie Allen, who was so excellent as Theon Greyjoy — a similarly despicable character in Game of Thrones. What Alfie hasn't realised is that the fellow whose pup he's just murdered is in fact an implacable hitman, recently retired. But now John Wick is back in business.
After the death of the dog — which is an unpleasant moment — this movie is pure pleasure. Wick wipes out everyone in his way in a sequence of splendid action set-pieces until the movie comes to its highly satisfying conclusion.
In many ways John Wick is reminiscent of The Equalizer. But that Denzel Washington revenge thriller was a complete failure on every level (I say this despite knowing it was a mammoth box office hit) whereas John Wick succeeds on every level. Okay, there is one really dumb moment of dialogue where the Russian punk's gangster dad tries to impress on him the folly of what he's just done: he describes how John Wick once killed three men with a pencil. A pencil. (Exactly the sort of idiotic thing Denzel was doing in The Equalizer). But, that aside, John Wick is a great shoot-em-up.
The movie exists in a stylised, slightly off-kilter version of reality. A parallel dimension where film noir rules — sort of a less extreme Sin City. In this respect the picture it most resembles is Payback. John Wick presents a world where there is a body disposal service which is just a phone call away, and there's a club and a hotel that cater only to hit men and top criminals, and payment is always in gold coins. The hotel clerk, revealingly, is called Charon — played impressively by Lance Reddick from The Wire.
It's a terrific cast, which also includes Ian McShane as the club owner, Willem Dafoe as Wick's hitman buddy, and Adrianne Palicki as Perkins, a briskly amoral hit-woman.
John Wick is written by Derek Kolstad whose previous credits are a couple of Dolph Lundgren vehicles, The Package and One in the Chamber. With this movie he seems to have taken a big step up. The director is Chad Stahleski, a former stunt coordinator.
The film is shot in doom laden greys and lavenders (which, if memory serves, was much the same pallet as The Equalizer) by cinematographer Jonathan Sela.
This movie was pure unalloyed pulp pleasure, apart from the incident with that poor dog. But then, I'm more of a cat person anyway.
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)