John Wick (2014) Review: World Building Done Right

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Recently, I saw John Wick directed by Chad Stahelski and starring Keanu Reeves. From the trailer, I assumed this movie was meant to be meta-textual:

“People keep asking me if I’m back… (Gun shots fire) YEAH, I think I’m back!”

I assumed this was Reeves letting the public know he’s making a comeback. I’m not saying he doesn’t do anything, but he certainly hasn’t littered the Hollywood scene as dramatically as he did in the 5 years after The Matrix. And with Keaton’s meta-textual themes in Birdman, Reeves’ was overdue. But then I saw the film…

A buddy of mine has told me (repeatedly) that I should go into every movie assuming the worst; it’s like going to the doctor expecting a terminal result and finding out only one testicle needs to be removed. I’m filled with welcomed surprise and gleeful reprieve. But even if I went into John Wick with cancer-tinted glasses, I can’t help but love this film.

John Wick is Subtle

Captain Obvious, I know, but for a “no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride,” John Wick is surprisingly subtle. The movie begins much like Pixar’s Up. There’s a romance between John Wick and a nondescript female who lollygag about on dates, but the frolicking comes to a sudden halt when the female falls fatally ill.

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When Wick (and the undisclosed mourners) leave the funeral, there’s a package waiting for Wick; the standard in-the-event-of-my-death, here’s a sympathy puppy. We watch Wick and the puppy bond in a similar fashion to his nondescript female… so you can guess where this is going. Some young thugs steal Wick’s car and the puppy becomes collateral damage.

However, when the youngsters try to sell the car, we’re treated to the first of many scenes wherein an older male physically abuses the young thug as they try to explain what John Wick is. In short: the best killer ever. All this builds suspense since all we’ve seen of John is his love. It’s enticing; it’s exciting!

Then we get to the first action sequence where Wick easily dispatches 20+ men. That may sound like a feat, but it’s relatively low-key, borderline anti-climatic. However, what makes this scene work is it’s role in the larger story:

  1. It delivers on the buildup to John Wick
  2. It foreshadows Wick’s weakness
  3. Builds on the subtlety

First, Wick has been declared the Boogeyman’s Boogeyman, so of course 20 men are easily dispatched. It may not be exciting to watch, but it delivered on the promise.

Second, Wick’s been out of the business for 4 years (something they’ll repeat often in case you forget) and it shows… not in his marksmanship, but in his hand-to-hand combat. During this firefight, there is one guy who Wick doesn’t get the jump on and is forced into a fistfight. The beauty of this is Wick doesn’t win when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. In fact, every fistfight he enters into throughout the rest of the film, he clearly loses and this builds on the final point: subtlety.

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Wick is retired but thinks he can handle fights as though he never been stopped working. It’s humorous when he engages in a brawl only to be overtaken. It’s a subtlety in Wick’s character that Keanu understands, making his line

“People keep asking me if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer for them, but YEAH, I think I’m back!”

more of an empty threat since he’s defenseless but is playing off his namesake in an effort to strike fear into his captors and win the psychological battle before the fight.

John Wick: World Building Done Right

Surely I don’t need to preach about how “world building” is big in Hollywood right now, but other than Disney’s MCU — which has such a natural synergy to it that other studios (see Sony) begrudge how they make it work — no other movie slash “universe-building-kickoff” has been able to achieve equal success… until John Wick.

John Wick is layered in subtlety and world building as opposed to plot holes and open-ended questions. At the end of the day, Wick’s story is akin to that of a cowboy: long history of misdeeds and looking for redemption. Wick’s story opens and closes with this installment. John Wick’s story can (and should) be over… but the world doesn’t need to end there.

This is one of the first action movies that actually delves into the details. Action movies tend to operate in hyper-realities where police are either corrupt or nonexistant; where buff-bodied heroes can drink barrels of beer without hindering their lightning-fast reflexes; where heroes can turn hotel rooms into bloodbaths and simply tip the maid to ensure the body is disposed of.

In John Wick though, we actually get insight into that hyper-reality. Following that first action sequence, John Wick is visited by a cop who has an “understanding” with John. After this conversation, Wick contacts an “old friend” who runs a body disposal and home clean-up service — who makes his money off people in the same industry as Wick.

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The subtlety and world-building hardly ends there as Wick checks into a hotel downtown that specifically caters to his kind and they all deal in mysterious gold coins (the accepted currency). The How and When are never explicitly stated because it’s never treated as anything abnormal; it’s the way their world works. Hell, the building isn’t even hidden, an average schmoe might walk in for room and board, maybe that happens, but it’s understood that they specifically cater to people in Wick’s profession. He simply deals one passing comment to the concierge, “still the same management?” and we’re to understand that this is a facility that accepts him.

This is how you build a world. It exists outside of John Wick. You could have a movie about the hotel, about John Leguizamo’s auto shop, about Willem Dafoe’s character, about Ian McShane’s early days, about the bouncer outside the nightclub, about the clean-up crew (who must be ex-assassins, let’s be honest), or about John Wick.

In this particular film, they chose John Wick and it was a good choice at that, but you don’t need him to continue to tell more stories.

John Wick 2014
Directed by Chad Stahelski
R
1 hour 41 minutes

PS. Eva Longoria produced this? One of the Desperate Housewives?!

For more reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

2 Comments on John Wick (2014) Review: World Building Done Right

  1. Everyone keeps saying good things about this movie so I guess I’ll have to check it out!… Right after I’m done with Daredevil.

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