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John Wick review: the car – or the puppy gets it

This Keanu Reeves film captures the relentless excitement of ‘shoot ‘em up’ video games

The internal ethics of screen violence are a fit subject for study. In Game of Thrones, Alfie Allen is tortured, castrated, psychologically annihilated and eventually turned into the debased slave of his tormentor. Elsewhere, characters are beheaded, disembowelled and optically gouged before their nearest and dearest. All of this seems like horseplay when set beside Allen’s own outrage in the low-brained, hugely entertaining John Wick. He kills Keanu Reeves’s puppy.

This sort of thing happens in harsh neo-realist dramas – the Mexican film Heli for one – but puppy-killing is high on the list of forbidden practices in mainstream US cinema. No retribution will feel sufficient.

Sure enough, following that gratuitous canicide, the titular John Wick sets out to thin the population of New York City to 19th-century levels. Since the film’s release in the United States last summer, an army of bloggers has been trying to determine precisely how many hoodlums Wick wastes in the picture. The estimates range between 76 and 84. Heck, that’s fewer than one a minute. It feels like a lot more.

It’s not just the dog. Utilising the current convention whereby dead spouses appear in smartphone videos modelled on the more oblique tampon commercials, the film tells us that Wick has recently lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan) to Movie Disease Number One.

Before passing, Mrs Wick arranged for the dog to be delivered to the grieving widower. Derek Kolstad’s script has, to this point, been cautious about revealing the nature of John’s business. He lives in a sleek house outside the city, drives a 1969 Mustang with great aggression and is played by Keanu Reeves. So we can safely assume that he isn’t in the liquid manure trade. It takes a run-in with a young tearaway to confirm what you’ve probably already guessed: he’s a retired killer reluctant to be sucked back into the maelstrom.

Allen plays Iosef, the son of a Russian hoodlum (Michael Nyqvist), who, encountering John at a gas station, makes an offer for his lovely car. (There is, apparently, a Clarksonian gag here that hangs on the Russian mistaking the vehicle for a less classy, more vulgar Mustang. Laugh if you understand.) John turns him down. The kid gets huffy, turns up at ungodly hours, takes the car and – no, this can’t be happening! – kills the unfortunate dog.

It transpires that Iosef’s dad is John’s former employer. Soon the entire Russian mafia is engaged in an uneven battle (that’s to say, one skewed on the other side’s favour) with the lone wolf called Wick. As you may have gathered, this is almost exactly the same plot as the recent Liam Neeson flick Run All Night. John Wick is more racist, more amoral, less realistic and considerably more violent. It is also a significantly better film.

Fans of action cinema will catch whiffs of John Woo and Ringo Lam. Keanu’s tunnel-vision determination (“You killed my dog”) recalls that of Lee Marvin (“I just want my money”) in John Boorman’s Point Blank. But the most unavoidable influences on John Wick are, surely, first- and second-person shooter video games. This is not meant as any sort of negative criticism. The directorial debut of a stunt expert, John Wick is one of the few films to have caught the relentless dynamism of those games – already in their own feedback loop with Asian cinema – and translated into a lucid cinematic language. Emotions matter little. Story matters less. Morals don’t register at all. But the rhythm of the killing creates its own irresistible machine music.

At the heart of it lies the hollow enigma that is Keanu Reeves. There’s more than one apparently lovable puppy in John Wick and the more human (though less animated) one has just got his teeth back into the rubber bone. This is a mindless hoot.