The revenge thriller is, by nature, a limited genre. Sure, you can play with tropes and flip the script as much as you like; in the end, though, your basic structure is still going to come down to “You wronged me; I make it right.” After seeing it a thousand times, the story itself becomes secondary to how it’s told and presented. So in making a revenge thriller, it’s important to keep in mind how the story is dressed. In the right hands, a familiar story can rise above its limitations to become something much larger, and much better, than the scope of its genre should allow.
With that in mind: John Wick is an amazing film.
There isn’t much to add about the plot that you can’t gather from the preview. Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a retired former hitman for the Russian mob who left to be with the woman he loved. His world is turned upside down when his wife dies from a rare disease; while he attempts to mourn his loss and move on with his life, numerous bad things happen. He is beaten, his dog is murdered, his beloved car stolen by the new generation of Russian gangsters who have no idea who they’re messing with.
Then it’s about 90 minutes of Keanu Reeves murdering the absolute fuck out of anything that moves.
It doesn’t get any more basic than John Wick, story-wise, but it still draws you in and holds on relentlessly. After its brief, expository intro, the movie opens up full throttle, piling up dead bodies and building a fascinating world.
Really, the world of John Wick is probably the most interesting element. It’s a world not unlike a video game—say, Grand Theft Auto — where stylized violence is sort of a way of life. It’s almost as if the universe of the movie is aware of its existence as an action movie setting. In this world, “hitman” is almost as viable a profession as any other, with its own code of ethics and SOP that all hitmen adhere to. Everyone in the profession knows everyone else, and they have their own bars and hotels that cater to the sensitive needs of their job.
As surface deep as the general story is, there’s a surprising depth to the world that almost screams to be explored in other movies. (Do all cities in this universe have hitman hotels? How deep does this network go? How did it even get established?)
This atmosphere is really sells John Wick and its simplistic premise. This is a film that knows what it is and what it needs to be, and it doesn’t hesitate to deliver. That such an intriguing world is created is a testament to the script by Derek Kolstad — his genre savviness serves him well, and he tells a story that feels fresh despite being nothing new.
This is further helped by directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (though credited as producer and director, respectively, the two have been open about this being a collaborative effort), who deliver scene after scene of balls out action movie glory. The world created by Kolstad is their playground, becoming fully actualized by their careful choreography. It may be lacking in subtlety and substance, but never before has watching brains splatter and necks get broken felt so close to ballet.
If you’re one of those movie watchers who can’t stand the idea of a film knowing how simple it is but still not giving a damn, then no argument will convince you of John Wick‘s brilliance. There’s no depth, nothing to tickle your intellectual fancy — this is a surface-level film where what you see is definitely what you get.
But if you can accept that sometimes a movie exists just to be fun — and that surface-level movies are every bit as viable as thought-provoking Oscar bait — then John Wick is well worth the $10 investment. It’s an immensely fun and endlessly watchable action romp, one that’ll stick with you long after the theater lights come up.