Film & TV

How John Wick Restored My Faith in Violent Movies

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But because Wick, through no fault of his own, has gotten on the bad side of some Russian mobsters, Daisy very soon thereafter meets a bad end. The murder happens swiftly, early in the picture (there's no sadistic, making-us-wait game going on here), and you don't see it. And it's what happens afterward that's most wrenching: The camera follows a trail of bloody smudges to the spot where Wick is just waking up; the puppy had used the last bit of her strength to crawl close to him. I groaned as I watched this. I'm extremely wary of animal death as a dramatic device: It can be done well, but it can also be used as a blunt tool against the audience, and I wasn't immediately sure how I felt about it this time.

But the puppy death in John Wick isn't a throwaway, not in the way it's treated by the filmmakers, and not in the context of Reeves's performance. Daisy's death leaves a hole in the movie, and that's as it should be. Even after I went home, the memory of her kept me up most of the night. I was haunted by her even though, as a person who sees hundreds of movies a year, I'm well aware of the tricks and techniques filmmakers use to get to us.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Reeves was haunting me too -- Wick's grief over not just his wife but this small, completely charming creature is muted but intense, like a radioactive ray, something you can feel more than see. His rage over the Russian thugs' cruelty sets the movie in motion, and then there's no stopping it. The lead baddie, Iosef -- played with villainous efficiency by Alfie Allen -- values no life beyond his own, dog's or man's. With every fiber of my being, I wanted Wick to smoke that creep -- the movie is designed to make you feel that way. But the heartsickness at the core of Reeves's performance keeps the vicarious revenge impulse in check. It's satisfying when Iosef finally bites the dust, but Daisy is still gone. Thankfully, the filmmakers offer a balm for that wound in the end -- partly because the audience needs it, but more because they just know what's right.

John Wick isn't perfect. It could actually stand to be funnier, more cartoonish, though I laughed grimly and perhaps embarrassingly often. And I admit that I did watch some of this blood spurting and bone cracking, bullets piercing sternums, and so forth, through what my friend and colleague David Edelstein calls Fingervision. What's more, at the screening I attended, which was a mix of media types and regular citizens, someone had brought a small child, who began crying halfway through. That distressed me. John Wick isn't a movie for kids.

But it's dangerous, for the health and vitality of the adult culture at large, to decry violent movies out of fear that the wrong people will see them. And it would be hypocritical for me to do so, given how much I love action-movie violence when it's done well. Why do I love it so much? Because it can be cathartic? Because, when a filmmaker knows what he or she is doing, it can be like dance? Because, seemingly paradoxically, the best violent movies are so full of life that they make me feel more alive? Or am I really just kind of twisted, the way millions of us seem to be?

John Wick, a mainstream entertainment that's heavily flawed and remarkable at once, answers none of those questions definitively for me. But even if the human heart is a beautiful, wonderful, sensitive thing -- capable of responding to Beatrix Potter, walks in the park, beautiful sunsets, Mozart, Bicycle Thieves, spring flowers, and autumn leaves -- it's also a muscle, a multitasker capable of handling feelings we don't fully understand. It's the Swiss army knife of the human condition. There are so many, many ways to use it.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.