When John Woo’s The Killer first hit American shores in 1990 its impact on hardcore film buffs was a bullet to the head. His influence on filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez is undeniable. Woo didn’t invent the “bullet ballet.” He admittedly took huge inspiration from Sam Peckinpah’s stylized death throes and slo-mo action sequences, but the Hong Kong director added a shitload of his own firepower and over-the-top choreography into the mix than film buffs had ever seen before. Woo absorbed and re-imagined the tropes of American westerns and gangster flicks and shipped them back to the States much in the same way the Brits took American rock and roll and revived it via The Beatles and The Stones.
Woo, like Sergio Leone, didn’t romanticize violence as much as poeticize it, transforming action films consciously into art from his own distinct perspective. He also injected the gangster genre with operatic soulfulness and a kind of cosmic existentialism. The results are thrilling, bloody, gorgeous and riddled with lead. Woo’s love of American musicals also gave his films a physical grace and energy that serves well the kinetics of violence. But unfortunately his influence became so pervasive and his style so re-cycled that film goers became jaded again. Tarantino did justice to his sources but most of those who followed in his tracks were hacks. After the umpteenth knock-off of Pulp Fiction in the form execrable turds like Boondock Saints and 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag, the thrill was gone. Even Woo couldn’t find a new angle.
In the past decade, the bullet ballets have been replaced by the slow shuffle of the living dead or the languor of the undead. While the zombies and vampires have taken over our TV screens, the fastest guns in the East have run out of lead. A few directors still occasionally deliver the goods – Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park and the venerable Johnny To – but the great wave of Hong Kong action movies has crested and film buffs in search of a next wave looked to be stone cold out of luck…or maybe not. With the arrival of John Wick we may have something to get excited about again.
John Wick may be the best Hong Kong-style gangster movie to be produced since Chow Yun Fat went hardboiled on our ass. Keanu Reeves is one bad motherfucker in the role of hitman/assassin John Wick. Little Buddha has gone ballistic. Ted’s newest adventure involves delivering 84 kills in 96 minutes…most of them direct shots to the face.
John Wick succeeds on just about every level. It looks great, has an amazing cast and not a single ounce of fat on its lean, mean celluloid body. If last night’s Fantastic Fest audience is any indication, this is the film that could reignite Reeves career big time and may very well kickstart a very cool movie franchise. A contemporary noir spin on Lone Wolf and Cub with Wick on an endless journey to clean up his ever-expanding bad karma.
First-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have taken a comic book approach to what is B-movie material and created an extraordinarily violent feel-good movie full of giddy energy, laugh-out-loud outrageousness and a glossy 90s vibe. In the center of it all is the silent but deadly Reeves, a Zen killer in Gucci suits who drives a fuel-injected ‘69 Mustang in Manhattan (!), has a soft spot for puppy dogs and a predilection for blowing people’s faces off.
But Reeves does a lot more than just sling guns. He’s a fighter and he’s amazingly agile in tightly choreographed scenes that obviously require actual martial art skills. Many of the fight sequences are filmed in long shots and Reeves is clearly doing his own stunt work. There’s no close-in quick editing to create the illusion the actor has fighting skills. And in what the directors humorously describes as “gunfu,” Reeves handles blue steel with the precision of a Benihana grill master.
As I watched John Wick, I thought of Reeves evolution from surfer dude/FBI agent Johnny Utah in Point Break to something closer to the relentless killing machine Lee Marvin played in Point Blank. It’s a transition that suits him. Reeves is no longer the cute and cuddly goofball with the I.Q. of a ham sandwich. In middle-age, he’s developed the cool, brooding intensity of a classic existential action hero. He may not be as brutal as Marvin, more like Clint Eastwood in the Leone films, but you still don’t want to fuck with him. This is an actor that used to be easy to make fun of. His apparent cluelessness invited it. But as John Wick, Reeves is someone you really don’t want to make fun of. Really. He just might blow your face off.
In addition to Reeves, John Wick has some stellar performances by Ian McShane, Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe and David Patrick Kelly. Marilyn Manson and Tyler Bates supply the soundtrack with an appropriately 90s retro feel. And it’s very cool to see a movie that takes place in New York City actually shot in New York City.
John Wick opens in the USA on October 24. I have a feeling it will be among my 10 favorite films of the year. It may not be great art, but it’s great entertainment and the kind of movie that I would have loved to have seen in a 42nd street grindhouse with a packed audience of people screaming at the screen: “Oh shit! Oh my fucking god. That motherfucker just blew the dude’s face off!!!”