I wasted $11 and more importantly two hours of my precious time watching “John Wick” this afternoon, a film that has an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and raves from the Boston Globe (“It’s all sharp stuff from Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves finds decently tailored material in their mix of busy physicality, spare drama, and wickedly dry humor.”) and the Chicago Sun-Times (“Stahelski has created an impressively distinctive, self-contained world for John Wick that emphasizes sophistication and stylishness”). Well, don’t believe the hype.
“John Wick” stars Keanu Reeves in the eponymous role as a professional killer who has retired after his wife died of some unspecified illness. After Russian gangsters steal his car and kill the puppy his late wife left him for companionship, he sets out on a course of bloody revenge.
Such a well-worn theme of a professional killer coming out of retirement must rely on writing and performance to stand out from the crowd. Done right as in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, it can be memorable. That film was noteworthy for emphasizing the vulnerability of the main character. His frailty and his being past his prime made the climax all the more powerful as Eastwood blasts a saloon full of bad guys to kingdom come.
In “John Wick” the hero is much more like The Terminator. When a powerful gangster learns that his thuggish son has killed Wick’s dog (the lout did not know that he had preyed on a legendary executioner nicknamed “the Boogyman” who used to work for his father before retiring), he sends a hit squad of a dozen men out to Wick’s ultramodern and luxurious house as a preemptive measure. In a kind of scene that gets repeated 4 or 5 times for the rest of the film until it gets to the point when you feel like yelling “enough already”, Wick kills them all and is not even scratched in the process. If you want to see Keanu Reeves shooting people in the head for an hour-and-a-half, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I think most of the critics got suckered into raving about this film because they had never been exposed to the films that it rips off, namely the Korean revenge genre. The film was co-directed by David Leitch, who worked as a stunt man in 81 movies before getting behind the camera, and Chad Stahelski, who started out as a kick-boxer before becoming a stunt man himself and appearing in his own 71 films. So with them, you should not expect Merchant-Ivory, not that I am a big Merchant-Ivory fan. In fact, despite my preference for coming-of-age narrative films made in Turkey or Marxist agitprop documentaries, there’s nothing I love better than mindless action films—provided they are done right.
The script was written by Derek Kolstad, who had only two credits before this—VOD movies starring Dolph Lundgren, the woefully untalented hulk who played Drago, the Russian boxer knocked by Rocky Balboa.
But the real template for “John Wick” is the Korean revenge film that compared to this effort is like putting John Coltrane next to Kenny G. Over the past twenty years or so, Korean film studios have turned out one noirish classic after another, all revolving around a man or woman who has been wronged so grievously that their mission to take revenge has an ineluctable logic that gains momentum like a locomotive engine burning a mixture of kerosene and nitroglycerine.
The best of them can now be seen on Netflix: “I Saw the Devil”. This is the story of a Korean spy whose wife is murdered in the first 5 minutes of the film. Despite his unimposing appearance, he is just as fearsome as John Wick. There are a lot of bad guys who get killed but it is a lot more substantial than the Hollywood cheap imitation. Forgive me for self-plagiarism but this is my review from February 15, 2011.
Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.
While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.
“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.
Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.
Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?
Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.
If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.