I'm Thinking' I'm Back: John Wick and The Return of Action Cinema

I’m a sucker for a lot of things in film. I’m a sucker for sequences that are beautiful or moving like when Joey runs through no man’s land in War Horse or when Martin Scorsese unleashes his own love affair with filmmaking in the guise of two children discovering the identity of George Méliès in Hugo. I’m a sucker for a great song on a soundtrack or a well-used long take, both of which can be handpicked from just about any of P.T. Anderson’s films. Above any specific example though I’m a sucker for filmmakers doing things well. It doesn’t seem like much but most productions these days aren’t populated by anyone being more than adequate at their jobs. So then it falls to a select few to actually prove that when movies are good there’s absolutely nothing better. Now that’s maybe too much praise to start a review of John Wick but I have to make it clear that despite any silliness or absurdity that occurs within its runtime, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski know exactly what their jobs are: to choreograph and direct some incredible action sequences. And they’re damn good at their jobs.

Action films are a dime a dozen. I shouldn’t say that. Action sequences are a dime a dozen. And they're too often the most boring parts of the films they break up. The water has been so muddied by blasé action films to think anything else. Action in American cinema has boiled down to a set of steps to follow. If one were to cut together action set pieces from the last decade of big budget American films it’d be difficult to tell one from the other. And that’s the problem. Movies that are marketed as action films seem misunderstand the very reason the genre exists. These moments of “action” are supposed to stop the film. Not because they’re bad but because they’re so engrossing by the intensity of what’s happening onscreen that the viewer forgets the rest of the film momentarily. The Expendables trilogy springs immediately to mind. I actually can’t think of a movie that fits the bill more perfectly. Every second of the trailers for these movies are filled with shooting, explosions, and whatever else the editor can grab to make the film look exciting. The problem is it's not exciting. It’s anything but. The action becomes so average that instead of thrilling the audience, they irritate the senses and make viewers wish for them to get back to the quieter parts of the film because at least the dialogue-driven sequences may still afford a surprise or two.

Fans of action films all have their favorites. The ones they stand by. I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the best shootouts on film belong almost exclusively to Michael Mann. Films like Heat, Collateral, Public Enemies, and Miami Vice all managed to lock themselves in my mind as the best of what realistic gunplay on film is supposed to look and feel like. But there’s another side of what guns are capable of onscreen. The more fantastic side. The side reserved for filmmakers like John Woo, Kurt Wimmer, The Wachowskis, and Robert Rodriguez. Movies like Hardboiled, Equilibrium, The Matrix Trilogy, and Desperado make it difficult to not suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of truly enjoying what these filmmaker’s have created: loud, bloody ballets of bullets.

And on that note, enter John Wick. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad create a world of gentleman criminals and killers that operate in their own personal version of New York City. They have their own clubs, bars, hotels and even currency, realized in the form of gold bullion coins. The world of John Wick is not unlike the worlds that Rian Johnson has created in any of his three features, especially Looper, his latest. Characters interact with codes and lingo that border on ridiculous but because the film manages to realize every other aspect of their fantasy lives, their dialogue never feels out of place. The balance of realistic dialogue versus fantastical world building is one of the easiest ways a film like this can fail. Luckily for John Wick, just the right amount of time is spent realizing what needed to be realized to sell the world that these characters inhabit. I’m not saying that we’re looking at lived-in history and production design to rival Lord of the Rings or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (yes, they’re that good). I’m trying to say that the success of John Wick is that we don’t have to rely on the world these characters live in to sell the film. Why? Because this film was directed by two former stuntmen. They wanted to make an action film that harked back to the generic ideal. Films with action setpiecess that take you out of the film entire and have their way with you.

The major action sequences in John Wick are half Michael Mann-realism and half John Woo-surrealism. Keanu Reeves moves with precision and skill and it’s almost impossible to not think of Tom Cruise’s vicious hit man character, Vincent, in Collateral.  But as much as Reeves portrays Wick as a cold, calculated killing machine who is an absolute pleasure to watch deal out death, there is another side of him. A side reminiscent of El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez’s pistol wielding legend played by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Wick makes quick work of wave after wave of gun-toting henchmen in this film and at no point did I ever question any of what I saw in front of me. I was too busy trying to keep myself from standing on my seat and shouting with excitement at the screen.

Action done right is the best. It’s one of the only things in cinema that you can’t react to while it’s happening. At least I can’t. If I’m watching a perfectly done piece of action I have to reserve all physical reactions until the sequence is over. Then I let loose. I laugh. I exhale. I say “…shit.” as quietly as I can but always a little too loud. The only times I’ve had that feeling in recent memory is while watching Gareth Evans The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berendal, films I consider to be the finest showcases of both martial arts choreography and cinematography of all time. John Wick wisely borrows from these films where it can. Whenever Reeves' character finds himself in combat without a firearm, he’s savagely beating his opponents with the same intensity, though maybe not the same mastery, as Iko Uwais’s Rama in the Raid films.

I won’t say John Wick is a film that’s going to change things. It won’t. But it did give me something I rarely get to see at the movies anymore. Truly thrilling action. Action that made me grip my armrest and move without my knowing it to the very edge of my seat. If every film were able to produce this effect through its action mechanics, going to the movies would undoubtedly get boring, but...having just seen the heights that truly good action choreography can bring me to, I can only hope that were I to have a conversation with quality genre filmmaking, it would mirror the one that John Wick has with his former employer near the end of the film’s second act. “People keep asking if I’m back. Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.”

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