Silver Screen: John Wick ***
A warning about the new Keanu Reeves-starring action flick John Wick: A dog dies. Not just a dog, but an adorable beagle puppy. And he doesn’t just die, he’s beaten to death, onscreen.
After the puppy’s bloody corpse is buried, at least fifty or sixty people are graphically murdered. Bones snap backwards, knives open up gushing arteries, bullets crash through human faces and reduce skulls to pulp and mush. But none of that is particularly upsetting.
Why is it that the death of an animal in a movie carries so much more weight than the death of a person? Part of it must be pure desensitization. Watch primetime TV for a couple of hours on any given weeknight and you’ll bear witness to a slew of murders and enough gun violence to account for a year’s worth of actual shooting deaths in Britain, or some other freedom-hating country where they don’t hand out pistols like Halloween candy. If you saw twenty dogs get shot every night, eventually Old Yeller would lose its punch.
It’s more than that, though. The innocence of animals makes their exploitation so much more upsetting. This is why you can watch The Walking Dead with a smile but feel your stomach sour during the commercial break when one of those wrenching Sarah McLachlan-scored anti-animal-abuse commercials comes on and ruins your evening.
I have no interest in spending time with the man who remains unmoved when a dog is hurt. But it can’t say anything positive about our psyches and our culture that it’s so much easier to watch fellow humans mangled, strangled, raped, and run down.
In John Wick’s defense, the dog’s death is the incident around which the entire movie revolves. Aside from Reeves’s titular gunslinger, the puppy has the most fully developed character of anyone in the movie. If the filmmakers could find as much sympathy for human beings as they do for canines, perhaps the movie wouldn’t be as disposable as the nameless hordes it feeds into the teeth of the gunfire.
Reeves’s Wick is a hitman who left the game for domestic bliss with his wife (Bridget Moynahan, seen only briefly in flashbacks). Following her death from a terminal illness, he’s totally adrift. After the funeral, a delivery man arrives with a parting gift from his wife: It’s that adorable puppy, which she arranged for him to receive so he wouldn’t be alone.
Shortly thereafter, Wick has a chance encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of a Russian mob boss (Michael Nyqvist), who has the hots for John’s tricked-out sports car. He and his crew follow Wick home to steal the car, and in the process kill the dog. Little do do they know that in taking away the last thing he has left to love, they have unleashed Wick’s fury. Now the hitman is out of retirement and has only one goal: Kill Iosef and bring down the Russians’ entire operation purely out of revenge.
The best bits of John Wick recall the sly, dark humor of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, with their brutal inevitability. When a chop-shop owner (John Leguizamo) realizes the Russians are messing with the retired Mister Wick, he sounds the alarm bells. The movie milks some good laughs out of various underworld figures learning who is hunting them. Before we’ve ever seen him throw a punch, we’re prepared by word of mouth for Wick’s oncoming kill-frenzy. And when it arrives, boy does it arrive.
Codirector and longtime stuntman David Leitch stages some thrilling, wonderfully choreographed fight sequences. You can’t exactly call them intense because there’s never any question that Wick will rapidly and with the greatest of ease kill every last mofo in the room. It’s reminiscent (though not nearly as good) as Wilson’s incredible Yip Man, where the running gag is that no one has even the slightest chance of defeating Donnie Yen. Rather than try to string the viewer along with the unlikely possibility that the hero may not emerge victorious, Leitch, codirector Chad Stahelski, and writer Derek Kolstad ask us to revel in his deadly artistry.
There are some fun, cartoonish elements along the way, like the downtown New York City hotel for hitmen, governed by an elaborate code and overseen by a fastidious concierge (Lance Reddick) and dapper owner (Deadwood’s Ian McShane). Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe both turn up as fellow hired guns with disparate agendas, and the delightfully villainous Dean Winters steals a couple of scenes as Nyqvist’s right-hand man.
In all honesty, however, I pretty much tuned out John Wick when the dog died. Its action-movie craftsmanship was admirable, and Reeves was surprisingly soulful as a character who mostly lived up to his outsized reputation. But who wants to go see a throwaway action flick to get bummed out? It’s a personal preference, but I’m unable to enjoy any movie that kills dogs or cats, or which uses sexual violence as a plot device. If you can’t get me invested in your character without murdering a puppy, maybe the storytelling business isn’t right for you.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.