When discussing Hollywood filmmaking, I always have to come back to Laurie Anderson’s song “Big Science,” “I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?” I tend to think of the song as deeply spiritual — questioning the nature of existence and time. But that one line pretty much sums up how Hollywood makes movies. These movies are to story telling what legos are to architecture. And even that if giving most films too much credit. And it is certainly giving John Wick too much credit.
I wanted to see the film. For one, I’m a Keanu Reeves fan. And I like revenge stories. And above all, I’m willing to meet a film on its own terms. But it was just bad. It had just about every comic book movie cliche in it. I’ve always felt that my greatest weakness as a fiction writer is my dialog. But listening to the dialog in this film was bad — like Jail Bait bad. The action sequences are all retreads of The Matrix. And the characters all act exactly as is necessary to move the plot along. That generally means they act stupidly.
Let us consider Viggo, the main villain. In order to save his life, he gives up his son to John Wick. Wick then kills the son and it is done. But then it is revealed that Marcus was working for Wick (this comes as absolutely no surprise unless you think that an assassin with rifle scope is incompetent — on multiple occasions). So what does Viggo do? He kidnaps Marcus and tortures him to death so that John Wick will come back and kill him. After having given up his son, why would he do this? There’s only one reason: because the screenwriter didn’t bother to write a credible motivation for the final confrontation.
But the critics have generally raved about the film. Why? Because it is so stylish! Well, it is stylish. It looked a hell of a lot like Constantine — made almost a decade earlier. The critics also liked the action, which as I said, was just a rehashing of The Matrix (15 years earlier). So John Wick puts together two previous Reeves films — but without the interesting plots that those films offered. And this is apparently enough.
Here’s the funny thing: John Wick works on its own terms. It tries to be nothing but violence porn — a big budget Ichi the Killer — and it succeeds at this. But the critics can’t talk about that. They have to talk about “style.” Meanwhile, they dump all over Krippendorf’s Tribe, even though it fully delivers the silly nonsense that it intends.
There is a tradition of this. Critics are much more likely to judge a drama (if that’s the right word for John Wick) on its own terms than they are a comedy. Just look at the critical response to Ishtar, which is a hilarious film. It has a 28% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes; John Wick has an 85% fresh rating.
So when it comes to John Wick, I will say what I usually say about films: it succeeds on its own terms. But that is not what critics normally say. What’s going on is that critics decide that they like a film and justify it. In the case of this film, there really isn’t much to like. It is what it is, but who enjoys this kind of thing? Will people still think this is a great film in 25 years like they do The Killer? I’m sure they won’t. But John Wick is passable. It’s enough like things we’ve seen Keanu Reeves do before, so it must be good. And God help us, they are making another one.