INT. FILM STUDIO – DAY
A disgruntled EXEC sits across a table from two hipster-looking WRITERS.
EXEC: That’s it? A kid’s dog dies and comes back to life to help him get a date to prom? That’s your movie?
WRITER 1: Yeah, we know it’s a little unconventional, but it’s a very personal story for us. We think it’ll resonate.
The Exec turns to the other writer.
WRITER 2: We think it’s really special. No one’s ever explored these themes.
The Exec takes the script and ferociously tears it to fucking shreds. It takes some measure of difficulty but when he’s done his suit is covered with sweat and their dream project is reduced to scraps of paper.
The writers look on in fear as the Exec grabs a piece of paper and a pen.
EXEC: You pretentious fucks want to write a movie? We’re gonna write a movie.
WRITER 2: We wrote one and you tore it up!
EXEC: That wasn’t a movie. That was some shit you should have worked through in therapy. I’m not funding that shit.
The Exec shows them a piece of paper. There is a tough looking stick figure on it. The stick figure has a crudely drawn gun in his hand.
EXEC: This is a movie. We got a guy —
WRITER 2: What’s his name?
EXEC: I don’t fucking care. John.
WRITER 1: John what?
EXEC: John Gunn!
WRITER 2: Kind of on the nose, right?
EXEC: So make up something else! He’s a hitman. Retired.
WRITER 1 (glazing over): What kind of hitman?
EXEC: The BEST kind you sarcastic dipshit. He’s an unstoppable killing machine. His mom is dead. Or his wife. I don’t care. He’s mad so he kills like eighty people.
WRITER 2: Then what?
EXEC: There is no “then what!” He’s a badass and he’s pissed so he rains death down on anyone who stands in his way.
WRITER 1: In his way of what? What does he want?
EXEC: You film school fucksticks do not get it. What he wants doesn’t matter. Who he is doesn’t matter. Give him something. Take it away. Let him shoot a bunch of people trying to get it back. Boom. The end. I’ll fund that. Get me a star with a few free months to kill and we’ll make it.
The writers look dejected. The Exec sees this. Takes pity on their artistic ambitions.
EXEC: Okay. Maybe, say, he has a dog. The dog is like real important to him. We get some meetcute shit with this hot shit cute dog and then some assholes kill the fucking dog. Cue tears. Cue sadness. Then, vengeance.
The writers look at each other. One of them looks down in his lap at a picture of his dog, sticking out of his wallet. Its edges frayed and jaundiced.
WRITER 1: We can make that work.
The Exec picks up his phone.
EXEC: Get me Nic Cage!
Now, that’s not necessarily how the development of John Wick went, but the sentiment is there. It needs to be said that simplicity is a severely underrated trait in modern filmmaking. While I don’t support cookie cutter movies that provide nothing new to the audience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a simple story that’s well told, and that is what we have here. You’ve seen the trailers. John Wick is a retired hitman whose dying wife leaves him a dog. They bond. Some asshole mobster kids kill the dog and steal his car. His hand is then forced to, you know, merc tons of people in spectacular and gratifying fashion. That’s it. No twists. No spoilers. It’s frighteningly straightforward, but it fucking WORKS.
Why does it work? That’s probably a better question. On paper, this movie falls somewhere between Commando and Taken in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, but in execution, John Wick just feels like a special journey. A big reason for that is Keanu Reeves. He’s always been criticized as being a bland non-actor. At times, that criticism isn’t far from the mark, but he’s always had an undeniable depth and charm. Here, in his Robert Downey Jr./Johnny Depp second career phase, he takes a tissue-thin character like John Wick and imbues him with a likable pathos that carries the whole project on his scruffy, perpetually saddened face.
The easy comparison would be Liam Neeson, taking basic hard man roles and infusing them with his natural gravitas. What sets Keanu apart is how little he needs to do to get a lot across. Most actors become more spare as the years go by, but what Keanu is able to do with a glance or the slight pivot of a shoulder is incredible. His physicality is immaculate. The reverence other characters show when describing John’s rep goes a long way towards making him feel like a phenom, but seeing his skills in practice is a whole other story.
He’s a force of nature, a self deprecating Angel of Death forced to do the one thing he’s ever really been good at, ending people, with a precision that belies his utter shame. Tons of B-movies tell the story of a killer who wants to leave the bodies in the past, but Keanu, perhaps by the very virtue of his inherent stoicism, makes you feel every ounce of that dread, that embarrassment. At one point, someone asks John what life was like on the other side, being settled down with a wife and not having to kill to survive. He deadpans “better than I deserved.” It’s a poetic moment in an otherwise blunt instrument of a film, one Keanu sells with a veteran ease.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, both former stuntmen, co-directed this film, and if nothing else, I hope this project gets them all manner of franchise work. These men understand what an action film needs to function and deliver it in spades. Weight, stakes, pacing, style. None of the fights feel like foregone conclusions. Every encounter is staged with a heft and certainty that a life is on the line. You always feel like John Wick will win, but how much it’ll end up costing each time out is a running tab that pays off on Keanu’s scraped face and damaged ribs. The comic booky noir trappings of the world building, both in the labyrinthine world of New York City assassins (with their gold coins, special hotels, and body disposal services) and the off-kilter coloring in the film’s distinctive lighting, make the relatively small tale feel larger than life, the kind of franchise-teasing epic every studio wants to be making but seems to bungle more often than not.
We’re beating around the bush here, though. Let’s talk about the real star of the film. Not John Leguizamo or Willem Dafoe in their fun roles, or Adrienne Palicki (in an underrated role that she imbues with a lot of life). No, not even Ian McShane, as the dandy who runs The Continental, the hitman hangout du jour. I’m even gonna skip over The Wire vets Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters. Michael Nyqvist delivers the best performance of his career as the film’s caustic, weathered villain and Liz Lemon’s ex-boyfriend has some great scenes as his assistant, but it’s not them either.
I’m talking about the dog.
Daisy The Beagle is the character find of 2014. Since Bridget Moynahan is given literally nothing to do as Wick’s dead wife, the lion’s share of the film’s babyface sympathy falls on Daisy’s shoulders. In like six minutes of screen time, you totally fall for this dog and by the connection John Wick gets from caring for it. It’s not good for a bad movie, either. The emotional power in those little corny scenes is better than most legit tearjerkers I’ve seen of late.
When the dog is fatally struck, it’s several feet away from John on the floor, but when he wakes up the next morning after being knocked out, the dog is next to him. Daisy crawled across the room to die next to her master. If that little bit of love isn’t worth Keanu putting bullets into motherfuckers for two hours, I don’t know what is.
John Wick is out now in theaters nationwide.