Fantastic Fest 2014 Review: JOHN WICK

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

After bringing his directorial debut (Man of Tai Chi) to Fantastic Fest last year, Keanu Reeves has returned.  This year Keanu attended the festival  in support of his latest starring role, an assassin seeking revenge in the bullet-riddled John Wick.  Known infamously in the underworld, John Wick comes out of retirement when the bratty son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian crime boss named Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) takes all that he has left in his now peaceful life.  A tad rusty, but still a highly skilled killer, Wick, once again brandishes his weapons, and has to fight his way toward his target.  To make matters more challenging, Tarasov puts a hefty price on Wick’s head to protect his son.

Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski, John Wick is a fun, exciting and explosive action flick.  Kolstad, Stahlelski, cast and crew have created a truly thrilling and enchanting world of criminals and killers.  The action is superbly choreographed, shot and edited, utilizing an old school style instead of shaky cinematography and fast cuts.  It truly is refreshing to behold and appreciate the stunts and action taking place on the screen for a change.  Stahlelski, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, and editor Elizabet Ronaldsdottir deserve praise for making the effort to consciously avoid this now cliché style of action cinema.

I do applaud writer Derek Kolstad for creating such an interesting and fun world in the film.  The story does take place in New York, but the filmmakers take a more hyper-realitstic than a realistic approach.  The dialogue and scenarios do occasionally get silly, and the story content isn’t anything movie audiences haven’t already seen.  At the same time, I do love that the filmmakers intended to make this a fun movie despite the intense violence and the potential for taking it in a much darker direction.

During the festival I was able to participate in round table interviews with director Chad Stahelski and producers David Leitch and Basil Iwanyk,   as well as stars Keanu Reeves and Adrianne Palicki.   Chad, David and Basil commented on how they achieved the desired tone of the film and their reasons for lightening the tone:

David Leitch: We always wanted to have a fun tone.  We had laid a lot of different music against the action.  We  had a lot of help from Tyler Bates, our composer.

Chad Stahlelski: We are very aware of the violence and we always knew we needed a softener or a tonal balance.

Basil Iwanyk: We wanted to let the audience off the hook.  We wanted them to understand the entire time that they’re watching a big goofy, fun movie with a ton of violence.  I think the moment it drifts into reality, I think it would be an unpleasant place.

The overall result is a great time for movie audiences, but achieving that in a spectacular way does require lots of hard work and training.

Basil acknowledged Reeves’s dedication to preparing for the role “Keanu did, and I’m not exaggerating, three to four months of training before the movie got started, and he doesn’t get paid for that by the way. He just does it because he wants to do great.” Reeves gleefully confirmed this when he sat down with our group.  “I worked with professionals in pistol works, tactics, long gun tactics and operations, and some Judo and Jujitsu.  They wanted to integrate the ‘Gun-fu’ with the Kung-fu.  Then I got to do some ‘Car-fu’. So I got to work with some professionals for some sliding and drifting.   You train. You roll the camera, and you hope you get it.”  Actress Adrianne Palicki had to do some extensive training of her own to prepare for her awesomely wicked role as Ms. Perkins.  “I started (training) about two months before actually shooting and they trained me in Judo and Jujitsu.”

And as far as the incredible stunts, fight choreography and action sequences go, this hard work and dedication has paid off.  Despite some of the occasionally silly moments, John Wick is a fun and wild ride.  Because this movie only gives audiences a glimpse of the Wick universe and it left me wanting more, I had to ask the filmmakers and stars if they’d all be willing to do further installments.  All of whom agreed that there’s plenty of room to expand with sequels and/or prequels.  Keanu Reeves summed up his love for his character with one statement, “John Wick is honorable.”

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