Review by: Steven Mullaney
“It’s not what you did, son. It’s who you did it to.”
John Wick is an action movie’s action movie. Beyond the events that make up the story, beyond what is actually, literally happening on-screen, there is no deeper activity going on. John Wick is purposefully and aggressively about absolutely nothing. I dare say it’s the action movie that every other action movie quietly dreams about becoming before being injected with the prejudices of its creator or a message to convey. John Wick has no thematic subtext, just bullet-ridden regular text. Every possible moral statement or guiding philosophy is flushed away like a juice cleanse.
But all of that is a calculated bid on all sides of the production to cultivate the purity of the action movie experience. John Wick may be empty of messages, but not emotion. It doesn’t have inner complexity, but it has a deep sense of fun. John Wick isn’t a story about themes, it’s a story about people.
People who get shot in the head by John Wick.
The plot of John Wick is structured like an Olympic swimmer, with all of the fat burned off until nothing is left but lean efficiency. John’s wife has died of cancer. John isn’t doing too great until a package shows up on his doorstep, containing a puppy his wife bought to keep John company after she passed away. For a minute it looks like life could return to normal—until a local mob boss’s son named Iosef decides he likes John’s car, and kills the dog during the process of stealing it.
The pace briefly runs out of steam midway through before catching a second wind, but other than that, there are no faulty parts in the John Wick machine. All of John Wick’s attention is focused inward in order to get the best mileage possible out of its somewhat limiting premise. John Wick is a movie that will never need to be remade—no matter how much future executives may want to—because it did everything it set out to do the first time, with no room for improvement. It is an evolutionary cul-de-sac action movie at the peak of its development. Historians may very well point to John Wick and go “There. That’s when we stopped being able to do actionized revenge thrillers. They’d come as far as they would go.”
As stated earlier, aside from a steadfast pro-live dog/anti-dead dog message, there’s nothing to glean and no central motivating message. This is as empty as an action movie can possibly get without losing function. Just like John himself, the movie made a difficult lifestyle choice and then worked as hard as it could to make it possible. As the saying goes, it takes a lot of effort to look this effortless; you could write a thesis paper about how this movie manages to be so polished while only rarely coming off as stale.
I’m not saying John Wick is a perfect movie. But John Wick is the perfect realization of what it is trying to be. What that is is a great action movie dedicated to nothing but the pure joy of being an action movie. If you like action movies, this is a must see. If you don’t, skip it. It is exactly as distilled as that, because it just doesn’t get more distilled than John Wick.