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Feature


When sadistic young thugs senselessly attack John Wick (Keanu Reeves) – a brilliantly lethal ex-assassin – they have no idea that they’ve just awakened the boogeyman.  With New York City as his bullet-riddled playground, Wick embarks on a merciless rampage, hunting down his adversaries with the skill and ruthlessness that made him an underworld legend. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 John Wick
Sometimes, we watch films for the art of it and/or the ever-elusive ‘emotional truth’ of a great performance. Other times, we just need a kick in the ass. Nothing fancy or complicated – no elaborate special effects, Oscar contending performances, wild plot twists, or complicated narrative structures. Just a strong, swift, and sure-footed kick in the ass. Assuming that we’re only counting North American release dates only, 2014 was headed by three fantastic, bone-crunching kicks in the ass – Adam Wingard’s The Guest, Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 (which admittedly did feature an over-abundance of plot), and Chad Stahelski & David Leitch’s John Wick. None of these films set the box office ablaze, but all three have already cemented deserved and growing cult reputations. Assuming the budgets stay low, a good reputation might be all that is required for us to get more kicks in the ass from these filmmakers in the near future. John Wick is easily the most straightforward, uncluttered kick in the ass and has the advantage of building a gun theme into most of its action sequences. This helps distinguish it from the other two great action movies of 2014 and from a collection of recent(ish) Keanu Reeves movies involving hand-to-hand fisticuffs. It also renews credence to terms like ‘gun-fu’ and ‘gun-kata’ for the first time since John Woo lost interest in the subject.

Stahelski & Leitch (Leitch is uncredited on the final print due to a ruling by the Director’s Guild of America) are both first time first-unit directors who have been quietly cutting their teeth as stunt men, stunt coordinators, and 2nd unit/assistant directors for decades now (Stahelski has served as Reeves’ stunt double on almost every film he’s made since Point Break). John Wick offers them a chance to flaunt their talents unhindered from the reins of ostentatious directors, nervous producers, and fastidious special effects supervisors. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s already thinly-sliced, straight to the point script was further streamlined with input from the directors and Reeves when he signed on. The story’s squeaky-clean efficiency doesn’t render it overly simplified or brittle, though; it just focuses the narrative’s peripheral information (it’s arguably built on a few too many coincidences). Audiences are welcome to experience the point A to point B tale of a brilliant murderer driven to bloody revenge by the death of his puppy. On this level alone, the film is plenty successful (even if it’s better to understand what the puppy represents to John Wick). But Kolstad adorns his script with a rich backdrop of narrative information (namely Wick’s pre-movie legend and the secret world he and his fellow assassins enjoy) that deepens the film’s world without interfering with the important stuff – namely John Wick shooting the shit out of the bad guys. The limited dialogue and exposition is refreshing, given the current Hollywood blockbuster climate, where characters are lost in labyrinthine, never-ending histories and franchise mythologies.

 John Wick
With the story cut to the bone and a capable cast in place, Stahelski & Leitch are able to tighten the pace and focus on the technical aspects of filmmaking they know so well. Critics have noted that it references a myriad of thoughtful and creative tough-guy classics. The directors pay homage to the coolest filmmakers that ever lived, from Sergio Leone to Jean-Pierre Melville and all the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s directors that drew inspiration from them. But, even while referencing antiquity, John Wick revels in modernity and is visually motivated by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent neo-noir thrillers, Drive and Only God Forgives. Refn’s digitally-shot, deliberately paced, and violence-driven films share a similar parentage with John Wick – specifically French Nouvelle Vague crime dramas, spaghetti western morality tales, grindhouse exploitation spectacle, and the poppy, neon-caked, 1980s Hollywood thrillers of Michael Mann and Brian DePalma – but his latest concoctions are an entirely different and refreshingly unique flavour (both John Wick and The Guest actually appear to confirm that Refn’s work has had a lasting effect on the low-to-medium budget action movie business).

Stahelski & Leitch apply Refn’s vulgar lighting schemes, limited camera moves, and patient editing techniques to their perfectly-staged set-pieces, creating not only beauty in carnage, but capturing every ounce of dynamic movement in frame. This puts John Wick in stark contrast to the ever-widening glut of big-budget action films that rattle and cut the hard work of well-trained actors and a staff of stunt professionals into incomprehensible visual gibberish. As working stunties themselves, the directors put extra effort into retaining the purity of fight coordinators Jonathan Eusebio & Jon Valera’s hard work. Camera movement and framing certainly isn’t stale or constantly stoic, but the battles are structured around camera angles with built-in edits and, in some cases, are allowed to play out in standing shots. You know when you watch a Blu-ray/DVD’s extras and see the rehearsal footage the stunt team shot to show the director and think ‘Gee, this is much more coherent than what appears in the movie – I wonder why they didn’t shoot it like this?’ ( Batman Begins is a prime example). Well, at its best (and it is almost always at its best), John Wick looks like a perfectly polished version of one of those. And it is delightful.

 John Wick

Video


As mentioned above, John Wick is a very handsome movie that embraces its Arri Alexa digital HD format in terms of clarity, smoothness, and the vibrancy of its sometimes outrageous colour palette. The directors and cinematographer Jonathan Sela intended the film to look darker, grittier, and more contrast-heavy as Wick wanders down the rabbit hole of violence. They achieved much of this in-camera by using a number of different lenses, creating a bevy of flares and similar artefacts. The imagery isn’t quite as heavily split as they may have intended, but the film does start with softer focus and plush details, then eventual dives into harsher textures and deeper blacks. The neon-lit club scenes are the big highlight and look spectacularly vibrant, especially following the more monochromatic sets. Nothing in the film appears particularly ‘naturalistic’; instead, each location is divided by palette types – Wick’s house is fluorescent and blue, mob boss Viggo Tarasov’s abode is caked in pastels, and the rainy night takes on a sickly green quality. Despite the soft edges and hazy blends, foreground and wide-angle elements are consistently well separated and nicely supported by rich, deep blacks. Some of the softer backgrounds do feature what looks like compression effects, but these appear to be normal digital artefacts caused by the stylized lighting schemes.

 John Wick

Audio


John Wick comes loaded with a wild and woolly Dolby TrueHD 7.1 compatible Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Silence plays a heavy role in the dynamic range of this particular track, especially during the beginning, when the back-story is set-up via a series of noises that overlap throughout montages (i.e. a beeping alarm fades into a beeping heart monitor, which then fades into the ringing of a metal piece of jewelry and eventually rain). The interplay between loud and quiet help heighten the experience and this delicacy is used to fantastic effect in the lead-up to the more boisterous sequences. The TrueHD downmix leaves the center channel dialogue a bit too soft, but doesn’t have much trouble with the big, noisy shoot outs and bone-crunching, LFE-rattling car chases. The bulk of the film’s score is supplied by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, who compose a lot of ambient hum and buzz alongside drum, guitar, and synth-driven character themes and action cues. All the music blends well with the rock, new wave, and techno songs that are used for additional texture.

 John Wick

Extras


  • Commentary with directors Chad Stahelski & David Leitch – The directors sound very happy to be involved the commentary process and their jovial tone goes a long way to help the listener overlook their slightly over-technical content. The most interesting stuff concerns the repeating background iconography and a deeper discussion of the unreal world that John Wick inhabits.
  • Don't F*#% With John Wick (15:20, HD) – A behind-the-scenes look at the training and choreography prep, including interviews and rehearsal footage.
  • Calling in the Cavalry (12:00, HD) – A casting featurette that features a bit of additional info about the pre-production process.
  • Destiny of a Collective (6:20, HD) – Concerning the directors’ history in stunts and second unit.
  • Assassin’s Code (5:20, HD) – A look at the film’s mythology/world and the production design/cinematography that supports it.
  • Red Circle (6:30, HD) – Behind-the-scenes of the central shootout in the Russian nightclub/bathhouse.
  • NYC Noir (6:00, HD) – More on production design, including a look at the storyboards and locations.
  • Trailer and trailers for other Lionsgate movies


 John Wick

Overall


John Wick probably isn’t going to change the world and I fear it may be forgotten by the general public in a couple of years, but it deserves the immense attention that has been hoisted upon it by the B-action community. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray looks sharp and comes loaded with a punchy Dolby Atmos soundtrack, alongside a decent collection of special features.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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