“They know you’re coming.”
“Of course, but it won’t matter.”
With this immortal exchange the end game of John Wick begins. But how did we get here? John Wick didn’t come out of a vacuum. Years of research and dedication along with a healthy dose of help from Asia allowed action movies to become the de facto proto-blockbusters that now arrive like clockwork every year.
John Wick is the offspring of multiple parents. The gun-fu so energetically performed and shot by Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo respectively. The MMA takedowns introduced by the likes of Undisputed, Never Back Down and SPL: Kill Zone. The need to get very far away from the cruelly but appropriately named Bayhem that dominated the first decade of this century.
The story of John Wick is not new. Revenge might be a dish best served cold but anyone with a passing interest in action movies should be surprised that the dish hasn’t gone stale yet. After his wife passes retired hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) receives Daisy, an adorable puppy, as a posthumous gift. Barely a day after getting the dog Russian gangsters led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) raid John Wick’s home, kill his dog and steal his prized car. Wick goes on the warpath.
So far so every assassin movie ever produced. What marked John Wick as different was the care put into it. Before John Wick was even thought of by writer Derek Kolstad there was Taken. Liam Neeson was not a widely recognised action star before Taken. Now that’s all he is. Both Neeson and Reeves were 50 when they accepted their respective roles but the similarities between the two movies end there.
Taken is messy. It’s action scenes are a crazed mix of choppy editing and shaky camerawork popularised by Michael Bay and the Bourne Identity series. Still for a while it worked until Chad Stahelski and David Leitch came along. Stahelski and Leitch had both been Reeves’ stunt doubles on The Matrix working in close coordination with the actor and wire stuntman Tiger Chen. They brought their knowledge and passion for action cinema to bear on what could have just been another Taken clone.
Fast forward five years on from John Wick: Chapter One and Stahelski and Leitch are now the burgeoning taste-makers of stylish, mid-range action movies. Leitch directed Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 and is working on a TV adaptation of the Hitman game series. Stahelski has directed all three John Wick films and his name is attached to multiple in-development comic book adaptations. An impressive follow-on resume for two men who thought they were making a straight-to-DVD Taken clone.
For about six years it became fashionable for older, respected actors to play an ageing assassin. Liam Neeson was the first with Taken. Denzel Washington had The Equalizer and Sean Penn had The Gunman. Even Ethan Hawke got in there with 24 Hours to Live. But barring the latter those movies all looked like Taken. In today’s modern world of clean, well-choreographed and high-octane action you don’t want your movie to look like Taken.
Chaos is suited to war or found footage horror movies. Chaos is suited to action movies too but in a controlled way. If the hero is going one way and the camera’s going the other what’s the point? The audience paid to see Keanu Reeves shoot fools and break necks not flail around in an exploding parking lot. Besides these technical aspects a good action movie needs just a few things to work: a hero, a villain and some jaw-dropping set-pieces. John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 have all three.
In John Wick: Chapter 1 John goes up against the spoiled Iosef and his professional father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). To get revenge for his puppy John annihilates a nightclub, a warehouse and a harbour full of Russian gangsters. The fights are neon-drenched and brutal. Reeves does most of his own stunts. He grapples, kicks and punches. He falls off a balcony. He gets hit by an SUV. Twice. He knife fights in the pouring rain. Three years later at 53 years old Reeves would do even more in John Wick: Chapter 2.
John Wick is not just famous for its action. It also builds a convincing world out of its hierarchy of global assassin Illuminati and gold coin based economy. The Continental is a hotel with multiple branches that caters exclusively to assassins. The New York chapter is run by the stony Winston (Ian McShane) while the Rome branch is run by the sombre Julius (Franco Nero). Within and without of the hotel services such as tailored, armour-plated suits and high-tech weapons dealers are available. It’s all ridiculous but it all somehow works.
It works because the characters believe it ergo so do the actors. The series’ supporting casts have always been well chosen. Ruby Rose’s mute henchwoman Ares. Common’s security chief Cassian has an unforgettable subway fight with John in Chapter 2. Julius’ look of concern as he asks Wick “Are you here for the Pope?” Willem Dafoe pops up in Chapter 1 in a role that’s far more Dafriend than Dafoe. There are more but they’re worth discovering on your own.
The scene I always come back to out of both John Wick films isn’t a fight scene or shootout. It’s at the beginning of the first film. Viggo has just found out that Iosef murdered John Wick’s dog. From what little we’ve seen of Viggo so far he strikes us as a confident, level-headed gang boss. As soon as he hears about his son’s indiscretion over the phone Viggo mutters a muted “Oh…” and instantly becomes a man on the run.
What follows is an explanation of who John Wick really is. Inter-cut with Viggo’s explanation is John literally digging up his past. It’s so on the nose it may as well be cocaine. It turns the film from action thriller to grim-dark tone poem in minutes. John Wick is a master assassin. He’s an avenging angel. He’s death incarnate. He’s the Bogeyman. Except he’s not.
He’s the man you send to kill the fucking Bogeyman.