Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Wick - **1/2

John Wick is a watershed event in the history of video games. Its designers have somehow overcome the uncanny valley and made a game that has the most incredible graphics I've ever seen. The only problem is that I can't play it, because it's actually a movie. It's full of visual flare and stylistic panache, weighed down by a strange sense of self-seriousness inconsistent with its seeming lack of ambition. It's a satisfying enough popcorn movie until you get through the top layer of butter and realize most of the kernels are stale.

What begins as an almost beautiful look at a man grieving his wife's death quickly shifts gears when a couple of thugs beat him up, steal his muscle car, and kill his dog, a plot turn that signals the introduction of uninvited familiarities. Then it's revenge time. Then it's cheap backstory time: before getting married and settling down, the man was a top-notch killer, "The Boogeyman." Wait, no, "The man you call to kill the Boogeyman." This is all fine while director Chad Stahelski is balancing brutal, matter-of-fact violence with beautiful choreography, and weaving it into a bizarre portrait of a fictitious seedy criminal underworld in New York City. But the momentum stops when Stahelski thinks we have any desire to hear the characters speak all sorts of tired dialogue, and as the plot contrivances start boiling over, our enthusiasm gets turned down to a simmer.

John Wick feels like a great 15 minute short film followed by 90 minutes of alternating action and boring video game cutscenes. No, it's not a game, nor is it based on one, but you might be convinced otherwise while watching it, for it so thoroughly emulates the cheesy storytelling (former hit man wants revenge) and cardboard characters with a singular goal (kill all the bad guys) of an average video game that those who miss it in theaters and pop the Blu-ray into their PS3 will be in for a minor head trip when they come to out of a trance of half-consciousness in the middle of the film and feel a game controller in their hands but are unable to influence what is happening on their TV screen... Especially if it happens to be during the sequence which cross-cuts between Keanu Reeves dispatching Russian mobsters with one of them literally playing a first-person shooter. It even features an in game artificial currency: gold coins redeemable for entrance to the hotel safe-house and favors from allies.

Shoddy storytelling and video game parallels and all, John Wick still manages to entertain on more than just a base-level. Keanu Reeves is an immensely talented actor, engaging even as the tabula rasa titular character in mediocre action films. And Stahelski and DP Jonathan Sela spoil the audience with stunning action sequences saturated in neon light and gorgeous overhead shots of New York City at night. If not for the abundance of hollow dialogue slowing things down, John Wick would easily become an instant cult classic. Instead, it just brandishes the dubious distinction of being simply one of the better action films of a lackluster year. Here's to hoping that that Blu-ray features some spectacular downloadable content.