What Went Right With… John Wick: Chapter 1?

A review of John Wick (2014)

John Wick (now retroactively titled John Wick: Chapter 1) is an extremely overrated film. Released in 2014, it answered the question: what would it look like if a stuntman made a movie? Directed by stunt-guy Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad (who was also responsible for mediocre action thrillers One In The Chamber and The Package) the film looked like a wannabe gritty crime drama but sounded like an ’80s action pastiche. Despite this, John Wick was a huge success and it was also critically acclaimed but to me, most of this praise was undeserved.

John Wick: Chapter 1 opens with a Serpico or Carlito’s Way-style end-at-the-beginning but make no mistake, this movie is not in the same calibre as these films. To be fair, John Wick isn’t trying to be, but the opening scenes did give me hope that this wasn’t another throwaway action film. Unfortunately, the film’s tone during the start (with the protagonist’s wife dying) is abandoned as soon as she’s buried, and the movie then descends into a world of comic book violence.

Released around the same time as Denzel Washington’s Equalizer, John Wick also featured caricatured Russian villains. It also included pointy-moustached, Wario-lookalike Tait Fletcher and there was even a slow-motion walk away from a fire toward the camera. It’s strange how films released at the same time have the same tropes, and like Equalizer, this was also a revenge-film which would go on to spawn an inferior sequel. But I digress.

John Wick is described as a “Neo-Noir” but it’s not exactly Memento. This movie is set in a potentially gritty and seedy New York but this is not a believable world. Yes, it’s the big apple but this place is very much stylised. Even the plot is in the realms of fanciful implausibility; a community of underworld evil-doers trading and collecting gold coins (like a computer game), a hotel exclusively for assassins (but without the acting talent of Hotel Artemis), there’s also weird embellishments such as the crap cocktail bar vedette and a tattooed, ’40’s burlesque bartender. John Wick is like watching a Frank Miller graphic novel that never was.

There are other issues. Firstly, that’s a weird choice of haircut for an assassin; it’s not only out of fashion, it’s inconvenient if not completely dangerous in fights. Remember that assassins are stealthy and unassuming, not dapper, handsome dudes who everybody would notice as soon as they enter a room. And if John Wick has Jason Bourne’s instincts, how can three thugs get the better of him with a few aluminium baseball bats? Plus John Wick is thrown down from a 15-20 foot height onto his back and he can still walk upright. And oh yes, Wick is an assassin that misses his target multiple times just to set up a better scene later on in the film. He’s also an assassin that can plainly see a champagne bottle being reached for but he lets the bad guy not only smash it but stab him in the gut. How with all this incompetency is he known as the “Boogeyman”?

Wick threatens people with a gun pointed straight against their head whilst putting them in a headlock, meaning that if fired, the bullet would penetrate his own arm. The other henchmen aren’t much better; they at one point form a circle and shoot Adrianne Palicki’s character as she stands in the centre knowing that they could end up shooting each other. Fans of this film would argue that it’s “just a bit of fun” and therefore we’re supposed to ignore all the far-fetched and somewhat stupid elements to the plot, critics have also defended the movie in a similar way. My argument is; if we’re not to take John Wick too seriously, then why the dark and sombre aesthetics? Crank 1 & 2 were “fun” but those two films sported visuals and a tone that matched. If you want us to react to this film as though it were “a bit of a laugh”, then maybe don’t open with a dying woman and a dead puppy, and for god’s sake, quit with the moody visuals, this isn’t Se7en.

One of the contributing factors as to why this film has a mediocre feel is the music. The corny song by Marilyn Manson (“We’re Killing Strangers”) is inserted numerous times into the film (at least twice) and in doing so it renders the scenes in which it plays unemotional. If this appalling song with the shite line “We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones that we love” were removed, the scene with Willem Dafoe getting tortured could have had some feeling and meaning. And speaking of music, there’s also middle-of-the-road Rock music playing during the body-disposal and fight scenes and some mundane Dubstep during the nightclub shoot-out scene. Save to say that the score and the soundtrack are major contributing factors as to why this film has a stale and out-of-style feel.

The editing also has an amateur quality. The flashback during the scene in which John Wick cleans the trail of blood from his floor is unneeded and it takes away from the potential sadness of his dog dying by his side.

At least the acting isn’t as bad as the soundtrack and the editing. Keanu Reeves is not exactly the best actor around, he is generally cast is films because he’s cool and good-looking, and this film plays to his strengths. Despite the film’s flaws, Reeves does a good job of portraying the grieving hitman and he also does some decent acting when reading the letter from his deceased wife which accompanies her gift of a beagle named Daisy.

The late Michael Nyqvist as Russian crime boss Viggo Tarasov brings a touch of credibility and believability to the film. Viggo’s son Iosef Tarasov (played by Alfie Allen) on the other hand, is an annoying, walking toothpick-looking motherfucker and you want him to die even before he breaks into Wick’s house. Taking into consideration the tone of the film and the average skills of most of the actors, it’s almost entirely down to Nyqvist why John Wick wasn’t as bad as its sequel John Wick: Chapter 2 and completely down to Keanu Reeves as to why it was a hit.

The idea that “you can’t retire from this business” is a terrible cliché, another element that adds to the throwback feel of this film. It’s strange that critics say how films like Greta are too “’90s” and by doing so have a dig at a genuinely entertaining film and yet they give a pass to macho, ’80s-imitations like this without even slightly bashing them. But I digress once more.

So why is this review in and not Well, firstly it just meets the score threshold. Secondly, Keanu Reeves is a likeable actor and Michael Nyqvist is always enjoyable to watch, and the concept that you don’t always know who you’re fucking with is an interesting idea, a kind of cautionary tale for potential thugs out there. Plus it’s not as bad as the terrible John Wick: Chapter 2.

Like I’ve already said, John Wick: Chapter 1 is an extremely overrated film. If someone described the plot to you without mentioning the star and the title, you’d probably imagine Steven Seagal in it. The line “You stole my car and you killed my dog” is cringe-worthy to hear, in fact you can almost picture someone like Jean-Claude Van Damme uttering something similar in a straight-to-video rental back in the day. Either that or it sounds like a line by Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. I know that there’s a sizeable portion of this films’ admirers who are die-hard Keanu Reeves fans but if all of you picture some dog-ugly bloke like Chuck Norris playing the same part, you can see how average this film really is beyond the superficial good looks of the lead.

Hello, my name is John Wick, my wife died and then you killed my dog, prepare to die.

Writing: 5/10

Directing: 5/10

Acting: 6/10

Overall: 5/10



Read the related article - What Went Wrong With... John Wick: Chapter 2?

What Went Wrong With… John Wick: Chapter 2?


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