By: Cole Henry
With John Wick Chapter 2 coming to theaters this Thursday I feel obligated to break down why the franchise is immensely important for the action genre, and action film-making in general.
John Wick (2014) is directed by Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman) and stars Keanu Reeves as the titular character of John Wick, a former assassin hell bent on revenge. Stahelski and Reeves have worked together before as Stahelski was a stunt coordinator on The Matrix movies, and their return together to the world of action film making is that of sheer perfection. John Wick is an film lover’s dream come true. It is lean, mean, and shot to sheer perfection. The story, while being rather minimal, propels the viewer into an interestingly crafted world of assassins, weird gold coins, and hotels specifically for those who are paid to take lives. It feels like a comic book universe yet it does not have the cinematic baggage of most comic book films in that it does not have to respect a previous work, pander to a very vocal audience, or rely heavily on gaudy special effects. The simple storytelling sets up each action set piece perfectly, and the viewer grows to care for John Wick and what he fights for. Thus, the action feels all that more important as the viewer cares for John Wick’s well being. Too many action films get bogged down in the story department and this film bucks this trend by creating a lean yet effective narrative in which the viewer is introduced into this world of neon nightclubs and murder.
The most important part of any action movie is just that, the action. In the past decade American action film making has lagged behind foreign action film making because most modern American action movies feature unnecessarily quick cuts, nausea inducing shaky cam, poor stunt work, and an obvious use of stunt doubles. What makes John Wick so important is that it bucks all of these trends and becomes the best modern American action movie in years. This can be attributed to the fact that the director, an ex-stunt man, felt compelled to keep the action all in frame, and put the stunt work, coordination, and character blocking on full display.
The film also benefits from the fact that Keanu Reeves does almost all of the stunts in this movie, and he trained intensely in proper gun play and various martial art forms, much like he did for The Matrix. At 52 years old, he moves and acts with his body in full motion better than almost any young actor today. He throws his whole body into the performance and stunt work of this movie, and it really pays off. His dedication to the role crafts John Wick into a character of unstoppable force, and yet he is still human, rusty even. He gets bested once or twice in the movie, and this just helps to ground the character within the bombastic fictional universe he exists in.
Thanks to the director’s dedication to keep the action kinetic and in the frame, and Keanu Reeve’s dedication to the physicality of the role, brilliant original action scenes are created. John Wick fights in a unique manner in that he is constantly in fluid motion, pairing gun play with martial arts, creating a sort of “gun kata” (a name the director penned for John’s fighting style).
His gun is constantly training from target to target, proper trigger control is maintained, and unlike most action movies the viewer sees John Wick nail every hard reload in the movie. His shot placement is laser focused in that he relies on head shots to fell each foe, and if he takes a shot that is not aimed for the head then it is solely meant to place an enemy in such a way that a head shot can be attained. All of this creates action set pieces ripe with energy and originality, and the viewer truly believes, like every character in the movie, that John Wick might just be the most dangerous man in the world.
Finally, the cinematography and use of lighting helps to create a world that thrives and pulses with life in the nighttime. The film takes place almost exclusively at night and the majority of the lighting is that of the neon variety, and this helps to add to the energy of the fight scenes. The environment itself seems to pulse with life and energy thus the action begins to feel even more fluid. Also, adding to this sense of energy via place is the use of music in the film. This is particularly evident in the brilliant night club scene in which intense pulsating bass heavy music lays a backdrop for the layered gunfight that lays waste to the club. Most action films today feel lethargic, simple, and lazy. John Wick is an important and wholly necessary breath of fresh air for a genre full of mediocrity, as of late. With the release of John Wick Chapter 2 already opening up to amazing reviews it shows that the John Wick franchise shows no signs of letting up in crafting brilliantly layered and dense action set pieces that any film goer, cinephile, or aspiring film maker can take immense pleasure and inspiration in. Once again, thank you for reading!