Riding off the coattails of career-defining roles like Johnny Utah in Point Break, Jack Traven in Speed, and, likely most famously, Neo in The Matrix Trilogy, Keanu Reeves seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut in late-90s to early 2000s cinema. Hollywood had its next big action star, and we couldn’t wait to see what came next. A couple of memorable efforts like Constantine and the supposedly underrated A Scanner Darkly (per members of the Jumpcut crew, I have never seen it), the next 11 years of Reeves’ career left something to be desired. The Day the Earth Stood Still? The Lake House? Generation Um…? Seriously, where did you go, Neo?
It turns out, Keanu was just biding his time. There was something brewing beneath the surface. In an era that saw old-school action movies being barely propped up by a reinvented Mission: Impossible franchise, the Indonesian action epic The Raid, and – somehow – the Fast and Furious franchise, we needed something to truly bring it back into the zeitgeist and give us something to root for.
There had been an awakening. I felt it. We all felt it. Keanu strode forth, returning to form and bringing unto the world a new action movie icon in The Baba Yaga himself – John Wick.
It had felt like an age between John Wick’s arrival and the last action hero. One could argue the case of Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills from the Taken series filling the void, but the 170-cut-fence-leap put that idea to bed quickly. I’d argue the last original action hero came way back in 2002 with Jason Bourne and The Bourne Identity, an entire 12 years before John Wick. Between then and Wick, we saw the superhero boom that changed what an action hero was and made them superheroes. It had been too long since we had a competent dude shooting bad guys, getting hurt in the process, but finding a way to win. We were spoiled when we laid eyes on John Wick.
Our first meeting with John isn’t an exciting one. He’s bleeding, stumbling out of a smoking SUV, seeking a moment of quiet refuge on wet concrete. He grabs his phone, watches a video that’s important to him, and quietly falls to his side in defeat. He’s human. He isn’t shrugging off bullet wounds, he’s down, he’s hurt, he’s beaten. Compounding the feeling of loss after his wife’s death which we’re shown shortly after. We have been introduced to a man who has lost everything, isolating himself from the world in his fancy home, with absolutely nothing left to fight for.
His upswing in mood comes with the arrival of a gift from the afterlife, a gorgeous dog sent to him by his wife. She knew death was coming, and this was her final gift to John, a spiritual vessel for her to always look after him, waking him up every day, to give him a purpose. John Wick’s opening segments is a slow meditation in grief and the way we deal with it. In John’s case, a normally stoic character, burns the fuck out of some rubber on an airport runway. He returns home, satisfied with his cathartic release done for the day.
Then, in a horrific, punch to the gut moment of utter cruelty, the dog is killed. The one thing that tethered John to Earth in the wake of the loss of the most important person to him is gone. There’s losing everything, then there’s losing everything.
What follows is the driving force of the rest of the film because, mercifully, John Wick isn’t another origin story. We’ve seen those before. I’m not sure Keanu would’ve done another action hero origin story, he was a few years past that. John Wick arrives on screen with a history that’s gradually revealed in the first 30 minutes, and then we’re shown exactly why he earned such a reputation. People are terrified of him. It’s an assumed fear because we’ve seen nothing to suggest why John has such a reputation. Crime lords look off-screen aghast that someone, anyone would have the temerity to fuck with John Wick. We immediately begin to form an image. We import our expectations into the titular character, and the film tells us what to expect. Expect someone with drive and focus. Don’t expect The Boogeyman, expect the man they “send to kill the fucking Boogeyman.” Expectations have been set. The film has given itself the challenge of meeting those expectations under the guidance of two stuntmen turned first-time directors on a relatively small budget. It seemed insurmountable. Impossible. And then it did it.
It all starts with a kitchen fight. John takes out 10 attackers with ease, navigating the geography of his house expertly in a terrifically shot gun-fu sequence as he uses everything at his disposal to beat his foe. Guns, fists, kitchen counters, bookshelves, windows, knives. Everything that could give himself an advantage in such a situation is used, and it’s all shot beautifully, maintaining the focus on the action, and only using cuts when absolutely necessary.
John Wick stands, in American cinema anyway, as a beacon of hope in the fast-cuts world of fight choreography. Cutting around poorly trained actors or obvious stunt doubles, struggling to follow every hit on screen. Even the Bourne series, which was renowned for this innovative hyper-fast editing style, is dated in a post-John Wick world. The kitchen fight is a great example of this, but it’s merely a taster of what’s to come, culminating in a spell-binding nightclub fight.
The nightclub fight is one of my favourite action scenes of the last 5 years – and yes, I’m including John Wick: Chapter Two in that. It’s a scene that has everything you want from an action scene, from terrific choreography, funny beats to alleviate the tension, creative kills, countless mists of blood erupting from John’s foes, and – most crucially – long takes.
Being able to shoot action in a long take is one of my personal favourite aspects of cinema. They’ve become a trendy technique to use in this day and age, but they’ve been around for years. Spielberg is a master of the subtle long-take, Alfred Hitchcock famously made an entire film, Rope, in one long-take (with hidden cuts dotted throughout the film), and recently we saw the Oscar-winning Birdman, all seemingly shot in a single take. As far as action goes, these scenes take months of preparation, but when they’re pulled off in the way John Wick did it, or the way True Detective famously did it, you can only sit back and admire the craft of it all.
Every action scene in John Wick feels like it’s been filmed by masters of their craft, not first-timers. Having said that, I’m sure directors Chad Stahleski (who stays with the series) and David Leitch (who has since gone on to direct films like Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) learned several lessons from their stunt days as it seems they knew exactly how to shoot these sequences. I’ve always thought geography is one of the most important aspects of well-shot action, so we’re walked through the entire nightclub before anything even begins to kick off. It shows us all of the locations in reverse order before we work our way back through them, leaving a trail of bodies and blood in our wake.
Not only is it well-shot, John Wick has an evident style, blending terrific shot composition, lighting, and a mesmerising soundtrack to draw us into the scene, and refuses to let go until its climax. The pounding synth score has become an anthem for high-octane action, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t put it on in the background during a gaming session to spur me onto something resembling John Wick levels of badassery. Every time I watch it, my wide-eyed sense of awe and wonder always returns. John Wick is so fucking cool.
John Wick doesn’t only excel on the action front, though it is the film’s main selling point. It is deceptively well-written beyond the rock-solid character creation. Writer Derek Kolstad has created a living, breathing world for our titular character to run amok within, and it balances its world-building perfectly. The rules of the world are never explained, aside from those Kolstad deems necessary. As such, John Wick is a perfect example of how a show-don’t-tell methodology should be done. We’re introduced to simple ideas – a central HQ, a gold coin based transaction system, and an interconnected crime world that goes all the way to the local police department (“Evening John. You working again?”). World-building doesn’t need to be complicated, it needs to draw you in and raise questions about itself without contradicting or taking it too far. John Wick does exactly that with simple scenes early on, such as the arrival of a crime scene clean up crew to dispose of bodies without hesitation. It was a world that I couldn’t wait to get back into, and John Wick: Chapter Two takes us deeper into the belly of the beast in satisfying ways that were set up by the groundwork laid by one of the best action films of 2014.
John Wick brought Keanu Reeves back into the spotlight, convinced us that he is back in the action game, and gave us a film that came out of the blue to take the world by storm. Spawning two sequels and a looming TV series, John Wick truly was the birth of the next great action hero. A character so great that, in any conversation of “who’d win in a fight between…?”, every great action hero would fall at the hands of Baba Yaga.
John McLane. James Bond. John Rambo. Ethan Hunt. Ellen Ripley. Jason Bourne. Sarah Connor.