Make Action Great Again
Over the years, action films have stagnated. No one likes them anymore. And why not? The primal side of man dictates that two people have to come together and bash it out, adrenaline pumping, and epic music playing in the background. Can a film scrape by with just a two-hour action shenanigan without a story though? Doubtful.
A modest budget, engaging dialogue, compelling story, and a grand finale are what made someone like Quentin Tarantino, successful. Thus, films such as Kill Bill are much more memorable than another generic action mash potato. The audience has to be invested in the main character, to an extent where the traits of a character can be relatable and be worn by the audience’s own shoes. “What would I do differently given the same situation?” An adventure of sorts will push the character beyond their original scope and drive the storyline, because the two components go hand in hand. How large are the stakes? This is another question filmmakers have to ask of their main character, in the end, even though victory is demanded, there has to be some risky business involved.
Take, for example, Tolkien’s Hobbit works. It can be debated if The Hobbit trilogy is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the story was still amazing. It follows the unlikeliest of heroes — a hobbit, a polar opposite specimen of a big, hunky macho. Nobody is realistically as short as a hobbit (except for you, delete this), yet Bilbo Baggins is relatable because he represents the bigger crowd. Sometimes, people feel small and weak in the face of adversity, and it feels nice to cheer on the little guy, especially when they rise to the occasion. The same can be said about a scrawny Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. A story about a weakling with heart and rising to the challenge of defeating evil is always a classic. A good classic too. Compare Bilbo Baggins to Superman, a character so unbelievably indestructible, little to no risk of loss, and with an annoying sense of virtuosity. They are not relatable, which ends up making them dull.
In hindsight, action films have a rather short shelf-life. They fail to withstand the test of time, usually since the scripts are generally the same, hero’s journey bore. No matter how advanced the CGI effects get, they are only a temporary source of entertainment, paling when compared to other film genres.
That is, of course, until John Wick showed up.
And here’s the thing. Action films are not boring. In fact, the action genre is not the only genre susceptible of copy and pasting itself over and over again. Romance films sell the same idea; cute guy meets hot girl and they shag. Horror films; the serial killer is obviously this guy. John Wick came at the perfect time into an action sphere seriously failing in standards, effectively breathing new life into the same boring script. With clever pauses, debonair cinematography and a new wave of action sequences, John Wick is not a follower of the old cult. It is a creator of a new one.
It was just a fucking…
Those are the last words of Iosef Tarasov before John puts a bullet through his head, all over a fucking dog. How important does a dog have to be, to cause a man to kill another man? John Wick is a revenge flick, for a dog. His wife parts earlier than expected due to a terminal illness, and in the crushing aftermath of losing the woman he loves, a gift arrives on his doorstep. A dog. It is a souvenir; a way to “grieve unalone” according to John. Then comes Iosef Tarasov and his gang of wannabe Russian gangsters. Iosef tries to buy John’s ’69 Boss Mustang at a gas station and is coolly rejected, which leads to a break-in and a grand theft auto. Worst of all, the poor doggy is killed. This event transpires the hunt for Iosef, where the world of assassins is introduced, and John Wick is like Robert McCall from The Equalizer. Even if John is retired, he is still a formidable assassin, someone the other assassins are cautious of. After the break-in, John takes a shower and shows off his tattoos on his back — the audience has just signed up for a joyride of what can be described as a ballet dance.
Well, John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman.
The film has a decent story, but long story short, audiences of John Wick adore the film because of the action scenes, simple as that. The dedication to world-building is undeniable and greatly appreciated, as the concept of assassins in suits running around beating people up will always tickle the bones. Guns and ammunition are unloaded with a care for neither noise control nor the cleanup crew. John is nowhere near the liability that Bilbo entails, should the hero’s journey be a question for the entirety of his journey. His opponents are reasonably afraid of what he can bring to the table, folktales of his flawless executions still resonating well within the history books. However, man’s appreciation for the primal demands satisfaction. Simplicity is the most important part of John Wick, less noticeable elements also fit bulbously into the overall allure. The perfect guy to do the job, with enough devotion to the project to impose a choreography masking its own intricacy. The film is brutish, but elegant. Such is the art of the action scene.
So why the popularity? Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are stuntmen through and through, so they were perfect to give a fighting spin, with their own take on the definition of “gun-fu”. The fast-paced action, almost impossible scenes bring more life to a retired assassin seeking revenge, dispatching a barrage of stunts involving the hyperkinetic physicality of martial arts and sleek guns. Of course, John Wick takes inspiration from the East, the place where “gun-fu” was birthed. First introduced by the Hong Kong police/mafia films by John Woo, Hard Boiled amazes till this day for essentially being the predecessor of John Wick. Embodying complicated choreographies, gun use and martial arts, angles, frenetic camera movements and fantastic stunts, the spectacle created is akin to the visual acrobatics of kung-fu itself. The result is transcendent, thus John Wick’s mainstream success. It is the marriage between the body and the gun, to make the character appear all-powerful when he kills close-up, yet vulnerable to the same threats he is imposing.
The influence of John Wick on fellow Western action films is uncanny; Atomic Blonde is another action film to prioritize bare-knuckle brawls over extensive gun mayhems. Even though the setting and characters are different, there is much to laud about a blonde woman dismantling men twice her size. The same can be said about John’s merciless and nimble formula for fighting, each jab as calculated as each takedown. That is the biggest difference between “gun-fu” and boring. Instead of shooting down hordes of Russian bad guys, John polishes them off one by one. Like the black suit that he is accoutred in, John is expressionless and every bit as cool as his superhuman prowess others revere him for and tout “Baba Yaga” for.
Sometimes, a film can only excel in one thing and not the other. Aside from the straightforward plot, John Wick really only cares about the violent action scenes. After all, those are the film’s main selling point, and the guys working in the script department formulated a story with the sole purpose of lining up beatdowns. A basic introduction to his backstory of dead wife and dog, a ridiculously spoiled brat, and then the highlights go off. Think 2013’s Evil Dead in terms of gore. Nothing else. The amateur-like film Fifty Shades of Black in terms of comedy.
The extravaganza directs the visual makeup of the film as well. Like old Hollywood’s ritzy musicals, a man in a black suit flying around is shot equivalently to a grand production number, prioritizing the finely detailed blocking. During the fightings, character movement is emphasized more than camera movement, in order to force the physical feats out of the actors. The co-directors make economical and articulate cuts to lead the audience through a maze of dead bodies, thereby installing a better mental blueprint of the battlefield. All this work put into making John Wick a reality; the martial arts and gun workshops that Keanu Reeves had to take, the attention to every detail of every move, the sexiest thing about the film is how easy everything looks to an unsuspecting audience, simple as it is straightforward.
Despite all the obvious fighting capabilities that John possesses, there is something a grieving man that people can get behind. The dog is not just a loyal companion to eat cereal next to — it is the widower’s last living memory of his wife, so of course John is mad. It was the metaphorical shot at starting a new life, the light at the end of the tunnel, condensed into the form of a salivating mammal. In a way, that dog was the reason for John to continue pushing forward and stop himself from slumping into nothingness. Iosef is foolish enough to unleash John from his comatose state and prove to the world that there is still fight left in him. All film long, he is beat and shot at, just as much as he deals the damage to the Russian dudes. No matter how tough the adversary, or how many people are sent, John Wick will handle them appropriately. It is difficult to say if he enjoys his killing profession, but he is certainly good at it.
Films try to review the universal truths of life, in the aesthetic way. Psychological and action films love to expand normal life experiences in the most hyperbolic proportion possible. John Wick does the same thing. Killing is never forgivable, though for grieving guys that train all their lives to kill artistically, is John’s coping mechanism at play, even if it means the life of his former employer’s over-pampered son.
I’ve never seen you like this.
Grief can end up crumbling the toughest of men, only if they allow it. Again, morality says that John should probably vent his anger in a more “legal” way, but anyone who has undergone the grieving process can empathize with his predicament. Through emotional connection, the film captures its audience’s hearts and rakes them back in to see what is next in store for John Wick. Sprinkle the fascinating world of assassins into the mold, and a franchise is born. Action, not for the sake of action, is reborn.