I saw John Wick late on night it came out, Oct. 24, in a halfway-full Brooklyn theater. I'd call myself a committed Keanu Reeves fan, but had only heard of this movie days before, when posters for it started popping up on the subway. So all I really knew was that this was a hard-boiled action movie starring Keanu. Sign me up.
The film starts slowly and cleanly—Keanu is in mourning for a departed wife, who left him a dog to remember her by. A Russian mob boss's upstart son beats him up, steals his car, and kills the dog. As The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert essayed last week, this amounts to the death of Wick's hopefulness, and unleashes his retired persona as terrifying mob enforcer. Alfie Allen must die, to be sure. And so must everyone trying to protect him.
John Wick is a movie you should see at midnight, with a screaming audience in attendance cheering for every preposterous action beat, every out-of-nowhere shriek from embattled mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) and every frustrated request by his consigliore Avi (Dean Winters) that he speak English. Either that, or you should see it almost by random happenstance, with no preparation for what's about to unfold, and marvel that such a strange film made it to the screen. John Wick is no ordinary Hollywood action claptrap, but it's not exactly aiming for profundity either. It achieves an almost impossible goal—being a basically plotless action/revenge drama but seeming utterly distinct all the same.
As ridiculous as it might sound, the film that John Wick immediately summoned to mind for me was Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Both take place almost entirely at night, in a New York City that barely pretends to be anything like the real place and instead functions as a backdrop for a grand metaphor to be enacted. Eyes Wide Shut recreated New York on soundstages in London, which lent a curiously surreal feel. John Wick shot on location, but its New York is a city empty of civilians, glimpsed only at night, a vast, echoing stage for balletic violence to play out on. At one point, a character is executed by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park at night. Central Park is closed at night, and it'd be crazy to kill someone there and expect not to get caught at any time of the day, but John Wick wants to wring the most out of its location, reality be damned.
For the majority of the film, Wick stays in a hotel that seems to be exclusively populated with fellow assassins, and pays for everything using a made-up currency of magical gold coins. Yes, magical gold coins. Sure, I'd already clapped and cheered during multiple scenes of Keanu cutting a bloody swathe through mob goons using a curious mix of hand-to-hand combat and headshots, but I think it was when I realized John Wick had invented its own currency that I decided I was going to start telling everyone I knew to see this film.
Other revenge-motivated action movies are very straightforward. In Taken, Liam Neeson's daughter has been kidnapped, and her virtue is being threatened, so he must save her. In John Wick, yes, Keanu's dog is dead, but there's something more metaphysical at work. Snotty mob heir Iosef (played by the eminently killable Alfie Allen) has violated a deeper moral balance in messing with John Wick, and when the higher-ups hear of his transgression, they react as if Iosef is already dead. It's like he has unlocked a box labeled "DO NOT OPEN" and must deal with the consequences. Wick’s wife and dog, he explains, represented his grip on humanity. Without them, he transforms into a ball of lightning tearing through the underworld. Most of the people he kills are trying to get him too, but some are just security standing in the way of his eventual target. They get popped in the head just the same.
Every further breaking of "the rules" (never codified, but always clear) always results in the same violent re-balancing. Assassin Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) tries to cash in on a huge bounty by attempting to take out Wick at his special hotel, which is supposed to be neutral ground. He fights her off, and later she is executed by fellow assassins as if she has violated some code of brotherhood. Let me remind you: This movie is about people who kill other people for money. The idea that they'd be remotely moralistic is ludicrous. And yet, that's the point: Even in the darkest universe, you have to obey some agreed-on standards, or else everything will just go to hell. Iosef's sin is not callous violence, it's disrespect; same goes for Perkins, and eventually Viggo, who Wick hunts down to avenge the death of another assassin friend.
I'm not even sure this attempt at meaning is what will make me (and others) watch John Wick again and again. The coolest thing about it really is the violence. Whether Wick is taking out people at a thudding nightclub, a rain-drenched dock, or a neon-lit bathhouse, everything is presented with a crispness lacking from most lazily cut shaky-cam action movies these days. And there's the refreshing, oddball sense of humor, down to the world-building and Nyqvist's engagingly big performance. The entire ensemble is filled with great "hey, it's that guy!" character actors, including John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Clarke Peters, and Thomas Sadoski in what amount to one-scene performances.
The difficulty in anointing any film a cult sensation is that it immediately gives it a whole new burden to bear: Audiences going to see John Wick expecting something ironic or skewed might exit disappointed. It's having fun, but it's still a straight-ahead revenge drama that gets a little bogged down in its own seriousness towards its last act. It's not perfect. But it is special, especially for a mid-budget Hollywood action drama, and it has stuck firmly in my mind since that late-night screening last Friday. I'm going to see it again; the question is just how many of you I'm dragging along with me.