John Wick is simply one of the best action movies of the past few years. Because the sequel, John Wick Chapter 2, is premiering tomorrow, I decided to revisit the first film in all its action glory.
The premise of the film is a retired assassin named John Wick (arguably Keanu Reeves best role) is greiving his recently deceased wife, when the son (Alfie Allen) of Russian mob boss (Michael Nyquist) steals his car and kills his new puppy, which was a gift from his wife. Then naturally John Wick seeks his revenge and kills a lot of people in the process. The plot is thin, but what makes this film stand out is the amazing, well choreographed action that does not rely on shaky cam or quick editing, a great supporting cast led by Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe, cool style, the action, the action, and the action. Did I mention this has incredible fight scenes and shoot outs? But my favorite aspect of this film is the cinematic universe John Wick creates.
The world presented in this movie apparently accepts widespread violence and murders. There is a hotel that is a safe haven for assassins and criminals. There is a mysterious gold coin currency, everyone wears suits, and there is an assassin jazz band! The first moment we realize that this film is setting up a criminal underground that is vastly different from other films is immediately after the first action set piece.
At the half hour mark, John Wick is visited by a group of assassins sent to his home to kill him, so John won’t go and murder the mob boss’s idiot son. John dispenses each of the would-be killers at night in his home. After John drives a knife into the final assailant, the door bell rings. John looks up and walks to the front door. Through the translucent french doors, we see the flashing red and blue lights of the police. John calmly walks to the door, keeping his pistol behind his back. He opens the door.
Evenin’, Jimmy. Noise complaint?
Jimmy peaks his head around John. John follows his gaze.
Camera cuts to a dead body lying in the hallway behind John.
You, uh, workin’ again?
No, just sortin’ some stuff out.
I’ll leave you be, then. Good night, John.
Good night, Jimmy.
John Wick closes the door behind Officer Jimmy.
Then John orders a clean up crew, we are introduced to the coin currency, and the movie continues. The above exchange between the police officer and Jimmy speaks volumes of the film’s first set up of an intriguing criminal enterprise. Up to this point, we only know that there is a powerful Russian mob in New York, there is a car shop used by the mob and John, and John Wick is an amazing assassin. So far, nothing is of particular note. It is all things we have seen before. But through this humorous quick check in by the police, we begin to understand that this won’t be a typical revenge film.
By acknowledging the existence of a police force and their apparent acceptance of this larger criminal underworld, we learn that the police won’t have an effect on the story nor any stake in the violence we are about to witness. And we never learn whether the plice are on the take and corrupt, or compliant in any mob activity, are paid off, or anything. How or why the cops are okay with these criminals is unkown, and it doesn’t matter. All we know is that a patrol officer by the name of Jimmy knows John, knows of his work experience, his retirement, and is unphased viewing a dead masked body in the middle of a hallway in the middle of the night in New Jersey. What’s important is the police are no threat to John Wick.
The filmmakers are smart. They know that the premise of a film like this can be shaky at best. This scene is a way for them to explain certain facts and dismiss potential questions. They are saying, “Don’t worry about local law enforcement. They won’t be an issue. This world is larger and more intricately connected than you may think. Don’t worry about it.” And we shouldn’t. The immediate follow up of a fast and efficient clean up crew shows that any evidence can be removed, taking away the threat of an FBI or large scale investigation, further providing evidence to how well executed (no pun intended) the work of these assassins and mobsters is. These are highly skilled, well organized, and intelligent professionals.
These professional criminals live in a world where cops aren’t a threat, evidence can be removed easily, they operate using a gold currency, everyone knows everyone, and we learn all of this in a span of five minutes. This efficiency in world building is great, and it only gets better as we are introduced to a deep network of assassins, the sanctuary hotel, and an honor code. And this larger different cinematic world is introduced not by the Russian mob or the first main action scene, but by the question, “You, uh, workin’ again?”, asked in a casual and friendly tone by a police officer to a very talented hitman. That is original filmmaking.