John Wick

John Wick ★★★½

I knew I loved John Wick the moment I heard its head-shot sound effects. It’s a very, very good sound: a plump splat, like a wet bathing suit smacking the floor of the tub. John Wick shoots a great many people in John Wick, and he always shoots them in the head — sometimes straight away, deftly plugging a target, and other times as a final coup de grace, catching a wounded baddie as he falls or lurches over. Early in the film a coterie of masked hitmen sneak into John Wick’s spacious modernist home in the middle of the night, and as he’s swiftly dispatching them he finds himself and one of the hitmen pausing on either side of a thin kitchen wall. In an ordinary action movie you might expect them to run or dive and shoot through the drywall, like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Vosloo do in Hard Target. Well, the hitman turns to do that, but not John Wick: he drops into crouch, firing up diagonally. The hitman misses. John Wick shoots him in the head.

What a sugar-rush of adolescent glee that aroused. And what a thoughtful moment it is: you can tell that this is the work of filmmakers who think about action the way writers think about prose — filmmakers who care a great deal about the way people hold guns or hit one another or the way a bullet sounds when it flumps into a big fleshy head. It’s no surprise that John Wick was directed by stunt men. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have never made a movie before, but they’ve worked on hundreds: they did fight choreography on 300 and Ninja Assassin, some second-unit work on After Earth and The Hunger Games. Mostly they doubled for action stars. Leitch was a five-time stand-in for Brad Pitt and a two-time stand-in for Jean-Claude Van Damme; Stahelski was the stand-in Brandon Lee after he died on the set of The Crow. They were also stunt doubles for Keanu Reeves on The Matrix — and it was Keanu, who had signed on to star in John Wick before the project had a director, who persuaded the studio to put the film in Leitch and Stahelski’s hands.

Stunts and fights and shootouts are John Wick’s animating force, and they’re done with the elegance and vigor you’d expect of men who have made a career of the craft. That was the attraction of the movie when it came out theatrically last October: it was billed as a lean, muscular action movie of a calibre scarcely seen since the halcyon days of the Hong Kong martial arts picture, and Leitch and Stahelski fulfill the promise gamely. This is particularly true of the movie’s big set piece, which people usually just call “the club scene”. The sequence is so ecstatically, rapturously good that I’m told there’s a strain of weed called “John Wick Club Scene”. As the sobriquet suggests, the scene involves John Wick storming a three-floor nightclub with a pistol and a jet-black suit, weaving in and around raucous partygoers as he drops Russian gangsters in a flourish of gun-fu. It’s exhilarating, rhythmic — almost like a dance. It lasts about ten minutes and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

The action is excellent, but the real reason John Wick is special is its tremendous sense of place. Leitch and Stahelski prove quite adept at what fantasy purists call “world-building”: the capacity to suggest with a bit of set-dressing and secondary characterization a world teeming with life and action. (The quintessential world-building exercise is The Lord of the Rings: people feel upon reading those books that Tolkien has described an actual place, one you can imagine in its vitalic sprawl beyond the parameters of the story being told there.) John Wick’s premise is very simple: the son of a powerful mobster runs afoul of a retired hitman when he steals his car and kills his dog, and the hitman in turn takes on the mob. It’s the story of an underworld — a place of mobsters and hitmen — and what’s incredible is how extensively, even rigorously, Leitch and Stahelski have furnished it. They’ve devised a system with its own codes, its own hotels, its own currency. All of it feels lived-in and true.