Spoilers for John Wick follow. Be warned.
Let's take a look at how quickly John Wick builds what passes for its story. You have a guy who lost his wife. He gains a dog. Assholes kill the dog. Surprise! The guy is one of the most feared killers in the business. It's time for him to go on a rampage and kill everyone who had anything to do with the dog's death.
"The film dispatches with similar narrative necessities with equal ease. Motivation? Okay. Mobsters kill the wrong guy’s dog. Next? Who’s John Wick? That’s silly. Everyone knows John Wick," Entertainment Weekly wrote. "Don’t you see how scared they are? Is he that good? Why are you asking so many questions? Just watch him suplex this dude."
That's not a joke, everyone in the film knows John Wick. He's given a free pass mostly due to being the most lethal person in the world. The economy of how the story is set up is part of what makes the film so much fun; you give the best-known killer of a fictional world the simplest reason to kill everyone and simply shoot the film as he moves from point A to point B doing exactly that.
How does John Wick get past the guard out front? The guard recognizes Wick, and is told to take the night off. He simply removes the earpiece and slowly moves away, knowing that any resistance or sudden movement means his immediate death. It's a fun moment, and it does more to prove Wick's status as a force of nature than anything that comes before. People who know, know not to fight back.
The film was directed by veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and stuntpeople behind the camera makes all the difference. The film is beautifully shot, sure, but it's also shot with a clean, sober look that gets rid of the shaky-cam and chaos that's so common in most action films. You know what's happening from moment to moment, and following the action isn't exhausting or even hard. You can relax, take a sip of your soda, and see everything the directors wanted you to see.
The stakes are very human; it's one man against many other men in usually enclosed spaces. Wick isn't trying to look cool in most of these scenes, he's merely trying to kill every target in the shortest amount of time possible. It's a precision of moment, shot with a precise eye, that makes it such a joy to watch. There are no cities being blown up, no huge setpieces that overwhelm the viewer; it's just one guy with some guns against many other people with guns.
Max Gladstone wrote a wonderful essay about how well John Wick uses the language of cinema, and how writing about action is such a different beast.
"The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify. There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant," he wrote.
"This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops. The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance."
Let's watch one more quick clip:
I've watched that scene over and over, and it's poetry every time. There are some seams to the choreography — Wick has no way of knowing when the guy is going to come in the back door but turns around and waits for him anyway — but each shot is long, with multiple instances of gunfire, and the cuts make perfect sense. The action moves to a very specific rhythm that highlights just how good Wick is with a gun.
He uses the barrel of the gun to stab someone in the throat, the hammer falls on an empty clip, and he has to reload. Did you notice how long that shot felt? That's due to the fact the camera didn't cut on a kill or a gunshot, the camera cuts to the other side of the scene when the clip is shaken out of the gun.
The final kill of the clip, the one that begins when the dude is shot in the foot, is one long shot. The camera pans up instead of cutting, taking in every shot and ending when the bad guy is kicked through the door.
Hell, go back and watch how well vertical and horizontal space is used between seconds three and six in that scene. That clip is 28 seconds long in total, but more interesting shit is going on in that half-minute than most action films deliver in their first half. It's a joy to watch.
The film is also not stupid, even though the plot is so simple. The gold coins, used to pay for everything in the criminal underworld, are never explained. They don't need to be, they signify Wick's move from one world to the next. He's going to places with different rules, even different currency. There is a comic book-style sense of gravity and style to how this all works, up to and including the punishment for breaking these rules.
It all adds up to an amazing piece of action cinema that bucks most of the annoying trends of the genre. If you love movies you'll probably enjoy it, but if you love action movies? This is a must-see. John Wick is a $1 rental right now on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.