This essay contains a spoiler or two for John Wick.
There's too much violence in movies today -- too much of the wrong kind, though if you asked me what the "right" kind is, I would only be able to tell you that I know it when I see it. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's John Wick -- in which Keanu Reeves plays a former hit man lured back to his old life by a savage murder -- is brutal as hell, a panoply of stabbings and shootings, stranglings, and clubbings that you almost certainly wouldn't want to take your mother to see, provided she isn't Ma Barker. But John Wick has stuck with me in ways I didn't expect, and it's rekindled my faith in violent action movies. It isn't perfect, but it's a flying leap in the right direction, and the key to it -- or at least one key -- is that it was made not by some guy who's most comfortable when fixated on a video monitor, but by people who actually know how to move.
Read our John Wick movie review
Stahelski, the movie's director, and Leitch, its producer, are veteran stuntmen who in recent years have been devising fight choreography for movies like The Bourne Legacy, Expendables 3, and the Hunger Games series. But even well-choreographed action sequences aren't always shot and edited as clearly as they ought to be. That's not necessarily out of ineptitude on the part of directors and editors; it could be a skewed conception of what they think audiences now expect. We've been conditioned to believe action is more exciting when it's diced to bits and presented to us in a choppy mosaic. When I've complained about this, action-movie fans have often taken that "Listen here, little lady" tone with me: "Well, that's what a fight or a car chase is like when you're right inside it." The so-called immersive experience has come to mean more than visual logic. If the event being depicted is chaotic, the filmmaking has to be, too.
That's not the way Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, or John Woo would think of it, but their ways of seeing seem to be outmoded. Incoherent action has become so commonplace that I doubt many filmgoers even notice it anymore. What John Wick brings back to action movies is the sense of violence as a barbarous ballet deserving a long take -- who wants to watch a grand pas that's gone through the visual woodchipper? Even in its most savage moments, John Wick revels in the glory of human movement. I wouldn't call the action sequences precise -- that's the wrong word when you're talking about the way joints and muscles and nerves work in tandem, beautiful in their very imperfection -- but I would call it specific, planned and executed in a way that the camera can easily follow. Every lunge, every rapid-fire spin, every kick to the ribs, every last-ditch swerve to dodge a bullet has a reason for existing -- each is a small event, leading to another and yet another, with perhaps just a few ticks of a second in between. It's always possible to tell who's coming from where, even if you can't see the specific "who" in question: In one gruesomely witty sequence, set in a men's spa, we see a victim-to-be blithely grooming himself in a mirror, even as another guy, reflected in another mirror, meets his maker. The movie takes visible pride in its own craftsmanship. It's a look-at-me picture that actually gives us something to look at.
And there's obvious joy in the way Stahelski and Leitch -- and cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir -- showcase Reeves. Over the years, critics -- people who are often afraid of looking foolish, and more's the pity -- have been quick to identify Reeves as a "bad" actor (in just about everything except the Matrix movies), as if doing so were a way to advertise their good taste. Reeves isn't flashy, but there's a calming gravity in his presence -- when it looks as if he's doing nothing, he's often just riding the moment. Maybe that's why he makes such a marvelous action hero: He's a man of action who appears to have already thought everything through. He moves decisively and with innate elegance, like a '30s movie star who's taken tons of fencing lessons. Even when kicking ass, there's a courtliness about him, as if the sweet gallantry of old Bill & Ted lines like "Our girlfriends are most chaste!" had seeped into his bones.
Reeves is a quiet, economical actor. His feelings always simmer just beneath the surface, and that undercurrent of raw awareness makes one scene in John Wick nearly unbearable to watch. Early on, we learn that Wick's wife has died from some unspecified illness. We see him get through the funeral, in the usual blur of grief, but at home that evening, he's left alone with his sorrow. The doorbell rings: Before she died, his wife (played by Bridget Moynihan and seen only on a cellphone screen and in dreamlike shards of flashback) arranged for a beagle puppy to be delivered to him, as a way of easing his loneliness. The dog has come with a tag emblazoned with her name, Daisy. When she arrives, Wick eyes her with slight skepticism, sizing her up in all her wiggly-waggly adorableness. The next morning, with nothing to feed her, he pours her a bowl of cornflakes with a splash of milk. She snuffles them right down, her tag jingling against the bowl.
But because Wick, through no fault of his own, has gotten on the bad side of some Russian mobsters, Daisy very soon thereafter meets a bad end. The murder happens swiftly, early in the picture (there's no sadistic, making-us-wait game going on here), and you don't see it. And it's what happens afterward that's most wrenching: The camera follows a trail of bloody smudges to the spot where Wick is just waking up; the puppy had used the last bit of her strength to crawl close to him. I groaned as I watched this. I'm extremely wary of animal death as a dramatic device: It can be done well, but it can also be used as a blunt tool against the audience, and I wasn't immediately sure how I felt about it this time.
But the puppy death in John Wick isn't a throwaway, not in the way it's treated by the filmmakers, and not in the context of Reeves's performance. Daisy's death leaves a hole in the movie, and that's as it should be. Even after I went home, the memory of her kept me up most of the night. I was haunted by her even though, as a person who sees hundreds of movies a year, I'm well aware of the tricks and techniques filmmakers use to get to us.
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The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Reeves was haunting me too -- Wick's grief over not just his wife but this small, completely charming creature is muted but intense, like a radioactive ray, something you can feel more than see. His rage over the Russian thugs' cruelty sets the movie in motion, and then there's no stopping it. The lead baddie, Iosef -- played with villainous efficiency by Alfie Allen -- values no life beyond his own, dog's or man's. With every fiber of my being, I wanted Wick to smoke that creep -- the movie is designed to make you feel that way. But the heartsickness at the core of Reeves's performance keeps the vicarious revenge impulse in check. It's satisfying when Iosef finally bites the dust, but Daisy is still gone. Thankfully, the filmmakers offer a balm for that wound in the end -- partly because the audience needs it, but more because they just know what's right.
John Wick isn't perfect. It could actually stand to be funnier, more cartoonish, though I laughed grimly and perhaps embarrassingly often. And I admit that I did watch some of this blood spurting and bone cracking, bullets piercing sternums, and so forth, through what my friend and colleague David Edelstein calls Fingervision. What's more, at the screening I attended, which was a mix of media types and regular citizens, someone had brought a small child, who began crying halfway through. That distressed me. John Wick isn't a movie for kids.
But it's dangerous, for the health and vitality of the adult culture at large, to decry violent movies out of fear that the wrong people will see them. And it would be hypocritical for me to do so, given how much I love action-movie violence when it's done well. Why do I love it so much? Because it can be cathartic? Because, when a filmmaker knows what he or she is doing, it can be like dance? Because, seemingly paradoxically, the best violent movies are so full of life that they make me feel more alive? Or am I really just kind of twisted, the way millions of us seem to be?
John Wick, a mainstream entertainment that's heavily flawed and remarkable at once, answers none of those questions definitively for me. But even if the human heart is a beautiful, wonderful, sensitive thing -- capable of responding to Beatrix Potter, walks in the park, beautiful sunsets, Mozart, Bicycle Thieves, spring flowers, and autumn leaves -- it's also a muscle, a multitasker capable of handling feelings we don't fully understand. It's the Swiss army knife of the human condition. There are so many, many ways to use it.