John Wick

Rating:

Keanu and his Popeye Point

Main Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist

Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch

In Bill Martell’s excellent scriptwriting tome, The Secrets of Action Screenwriting, the author talks about how every action film needs what he refers to as a “Popeye Point.” The Popeye Point is the moment in the film where our hero has had all he can take – the instance where he simply cannot walk away from the conflict he’s facing. When this moment happens, he’s gotta grab his guns and get to the bloody stuff. This moment often occurs around the end of the second act – launching a movie into the explosive finale that fans have longed for from the opening moments. Keanu Reeves’ new action flick, John Wick, flips that paradigm completely – with some pretty amazing results.

The Popeye Point in John Wick occurs roughly 20 minutes in, near the end of the first act – when a group of Russian thugs break into our protagonist’s house to steal his beloved Mustang and kill the puppy given to him by his recently deceased wife. Bad move. You can kick a man when he’s down – but killing Keanu Reeves’ dog is clearly taking things too far (and it doesn’t help that said dog, named Daisy, is adorable). This launches Wick on a mission of vengeance – one he’s particularly well-suited for, since he was a hired gun for the Russian mob years earlier. Wick is the ultimate badass, a fact we learn when his former employer, Vigo (Michael Nyqvist) explains to his son (Game of Thrones’ star Alfie Allen) that John Wick wasn’t The Bogeyman – he was the guy they sent to kill The Bogeyman.

With things thrown into motion so early in the narrative, stunt-guys-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch can then spend the next hour of screentime executing elaborately choreographed action sequences wherein we see for ourselves that the stories of John Wick’s unique set of skills weren’t exaggerated. Wick is a killing machine, as deadly with a pencil as he is an assault rifle or a souped up sports car, and a whole lot of Russian gangsters are about to experience this firsthand. The film purrs like a finely tuned engine when Wick is doling out his unique brand of justice

While the plot of John Wick is relatively shallow, Reeves brings the character to life in a way that makes the viewer overlook some of the things the script just glosses over. At its most basic level, John Wick feels like a screenplay written for Jason Statham – and one inspired by Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise. Reeves’ grizzled, world-weary approach to the character really adds another dimension to the experience – if only because Reeves makes John Wick one of my favorite kinds of cinematic badasses: a reluctant one. It doesn’t hurt that Reeves is 50 years old now – and not relying on the boyish charm (although let’s be honest – he could pass for 35) that helped him coast through so many of his early efforts.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. Derek Kolstad’s script has a tendency to flounder a bit in the moments between the action sequences. John Wick hints at this greater mythology (most of it revolving around the “safe ground” criminal hotel that Reeves’ character holes up in once he starts his mission of vengeance), but it never explores it with any sort of depth. We’re left to wonder about this bigger picture and what it all means. It’s unfortunate, because it feels like there’s more to the story there. The same can be said with some of the supporting characters, particularly Ian McShane – who basically turns up in an extended cameo.

Maybe some of this will be explored in the planned sequel, but the idea of extending John Wick into a franchise makes me nervous. The beauty of the film is that it’s a self-contained story – there’s no need for Wick’s character to move forward into another brain-splattering adventure once this one ends. It’s hard not to look at it and see the potential franchise wandering into Taken territory – a place where they keep churning out more films even though there’s no point to it beyond making money. No, the real way to do another John Wick film is to move backwards: a prequel would allow us to see Reeves’ character in his prime – the guy hinted at and whispered about by the characters in the present film. Plus, maybe we’d get to see firsthand how Wick took out three men with a single pencil. Yeah, I’d be down for that. I suspect most of my action film-loving brethren would be too.

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