‘John Wick: Chapter 1’: The One where the Dog Dies☆☆☆

“John Wick” was the debut of the directorial team of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (although Leitch is uncredited). Stahelski had worked as a stunt coordinator and second unit director and Leitch had been a stuntman and a stunt coordinator. “John Wick” is stunt heavy, but still manages to have an atmospheric, emotional pull, surprising for a story about a retired assassin played by the laconic Keanu Reeves.

The 2014 movie begins with John Wick crashing a car into what turns out to be an animal shelter and a badly wounded John Wick breaking in and entering. Then we flash back to John Wick in mourning. His wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), has just died from an unnamed terminal illness and his wife has a sweet beagle puppy named Daisy delivered to John after her funeral. The puppy seems to show genuine affection in its few scenes, but one day, John goes out to buy toys and other things for his new puppy and stops for gas. Unfortunately, a trio of gangsters also stops at the same gas station and the leader, the young spoiled Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) takes a shine to John’s vintage 1959 Mustang. Iosef wants to buy it; John insists it isn’t for sale.

That night, awakened by the whining Daisy, John is attacked by the three Russian gangsters. One bludgeons Daisy to death. They not only steal his Mustang; they put a bat through the windshield of his deceased wife’s car.

Iosef takes the Mustang to Aurelio’s chop shop to have the VIN changed, but Aurelio (throws him out because he recognizes the car. Through Aurelio, John learns that Iosef is the son Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the head of the Russian organized crime in New York City. Aurelio also informs Viggo about Iosef’s encounter with John Wick. Through Viggo, we learn who John is. He’s the kind of guy who could kill three men in a bar with a pencil.

More importantly, John was an assassin known informally as Baba Yaga…not the boogeyman, but the person you call to kill the boogeyman. When John met Helen, he asked to retire and Viggo set an “impossible task” that resulted in a lot of buried bodies and the building of Viggo’s criminal empire.

Although Viggo asks John to forgive his son, John doesn’t respond. Viggo sends a team of assassins to John’s home, but John kills them all and hires a professional cleaner to get rid of the bodies. Viggo then hires John’s mentor Marcus (Willem Dafoe). In this underworld of highly organized criminals, there is a hotel, the Continental, that serves as a sanctuary for assassins and their kind when they themselves become targets. The Continental is managed by Winston (Ian McShane) with the elegant concierge Charon (Lance Reddick).

Viggo puts out a contract for those willing to break the rules of sanctuary to kill John. John isn’t killed but even within the assassin and organized crime culture, rules are broken and the criminals consider it a crime. Judgement is swift and often fatal. We already know that John Wick survives, but he also saves a pit bull pup scheduled to be euthanized.

As you would expect from former stunt coordinators, the action scenes are dynamic and that might be enough, but the emotional thread that motivates Chapter One is exceptionally constructed, justifying much of the rage and making mass murder more acceptable to your everyday animal lover.

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