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Why John Wick rules so hard

Ahead of its sequel, let’s review how John Wick became an instant action classic.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick
Keanu Reeves as John Wick
Summit Entertainment

With Hollywood studios force-feeding audiences brand expansions mandated by nothing more than their own bottom line, it’s understandable that we’ve gotten a little dubious of sequels. Responses to the news of a beloved film going franchise tend to range from cautious optimism at best to bafflement and rage at worst. It feels like just yesterday that cries of “Who could have asked for The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature?!” echoed all across America, though it’s possible that may have been just me.

It came as a refreshing change of pace, then, when the news that the 2014 Keanu Reeves action vehicle John Wick would get the sequel treatment broke to general rejoicing. Even now, with the much-touted John Wick 2 two days from wide release, the overall mood surrounding the sequel has remained upbeat and eager, bolstered by breathless tweets from early press screenings.

No wonder; the original John Wick enjoys a sterling critical reputation and an ardent fan base, somehow having achieved cult-object status about 20 minutes into its first showings at public cineplexes. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key lightly spoofed it with their big-screen vehicle Keanu last year. The fanboy-favorite pop culture outlet Birth Movies Death is currently in the middle of “Wick Week,” a multi-day salute to the new heir apparent to the action-franchise throne.

It’s not hard to see what the fuss is about either. John Wick rules.

That’s pretty much all that comes to mind when someone asks you to explain the film’s charms: that it hauls all manner of ass. Its pleasures feel self-evident, simple, and immediate. The movie is good because the action is good, easy as that.

But while that feeling of simplicity is key to why John Wick works, less apparent factors also figure prominently into its overall appeal. Judiciously curated influences, a perfectly chosen leading man, and elaborate choreography masking its own intricacy all combined to make this film in particular stick in the cultural landscape. John Wick hits with the blunt force of a shotgun blast, but crack open any firearm and you’ll find it houses some deceptively sophisticated mechanisms.

John Wick got off on the right foot by taking inspiration from the East

As career stuntmen, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were the ideal men to bring John Wick to life. The co-directors brought years of combat experience to the table when they set out to make John Wick, and like any action junkies worth their salt, they had cultivated an obsession with the tradition known as “gun fu.”

As the name suggests, the combat style fuses the hyperkinetic physicality of martial arts with live ammo for one violent yet graceful onslaught. Filmmaker John Woo, a professed influence of Stahelski and Leitch on the film, birthed the gun fu genre during the late 1980s and brought it to prominence with such films as The Killer and Hard Boiled during the early ’90s. Woo turned Hong Kong into the epicenter of a fascinating and highly influential movement in action filmmaking, with his countrymen Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark also conducting mad experiments with death-defying stunts.

The distinctive techniques popular in the Hong Kong action style soon caught the attention of filmmakers stateside. The Wachowski siblings ransacked Woo’s cinematic bag of tricks for The Matrix movies (on which Stahelski and Leitch both worked), adding the digital innovation of “bullet time” to the weightless shootouts. It’s all right there in the legendary lobby showdown: the dual-wielding pistols, the indoor sunglasses, the slow-mo wall running. And, ever the magpie, Quentin Tarantino wholesale ganked a handful of shots from The Killer for the bullet-strewn finale of Django Unchained.

The gun fu tradition lives on in John Wick’s simultaneously brutal and nimble method of fighting, in which each shot is as precise and purposeful as a jab or kick. Wick doesn’t just shoot the scores of Russian gangsters who cross his path of revenge — he dispatches them. Clad in a black suit that wouldn’t look out of place on Chow Yun-fat, Wick moves with an almost superhuman agility that earns him the title “Baba Yaga” among the gangsters who still revere and fear him. He’s a wuxia warrior by way of Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

John Wick reminded audiences what Keanu Reeves does best

John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad has confessed that he had Paul Newman in mind while drafting the script. But given that Newman’s been dead for some time now, the producers decided to go in a different direction, and it was to the film’s benefit that they did.

The role of John Wick plays to Keanu Reeves’s highly specific strengths as an actor. J-Wick’s tense stoicism gelled perfectly with the actor’s dialed-back mode of performance, his restrained anguish a natural pose for Reeves to assume. Though his retaliatory rampage is fueled by the sacred bond between a man and his dog, John Wick presents himself as a remorseless and impersonal force of death. The notion that he’s no mere mortal enhances the shock-and-awe aspect of his bloody campaign (and is reinforced when he takes several shots and appears undeterred), and what’s more, it helped jump-start Reeves’s flagging career.

Memories of Reeves from the Matrix set were still clear in Stahelski and Leitch’s minds when they tapped him for the part, and accordingly, they remembered him as he was rather than as what he’d become. The years since Reeves’s turn as blank-slate killing machine Neo had not been particularly kind to him, and his work had substantially thinned out around the start of the 2010s. His IMDb profile was getting clogged with little-seen indies and critical failures, but John Wick got him back on his game.

Reeves’s guns-blazing somersault back into his wheelhouse added a cathartic undercurrent to John Wick; it was thrilling to see a skilled professional allowed to get back to doing what he’s best at.

Summit Entertainment

The role opened up a world of opportunity for Reeves moving forward, as he has since scored clutch roles in The Neon Demon, the upcoming oddity The Bad Batch, and the fabled next project from Shane Carruth, The Modern Ocean. Keanu’s thinking he’s back, and John Wick gave him one hell of a welcoming party.

John Wick approaches spectacle like a musical, with point-blank shots instead of high C’s

John Wick excelled by knowing when and how to get out of its own way. The co-directors understood that the fight sequences would be their film’s main selling point, and the script obliged by constructing a story that exists mainly to cue up massive melees.

This is where many lesser action films have faltered, unable to ferry their hero from fisticuff to fisticuff without lapsing into implausibility or stupidity. The bare-bones plot of John Wick, however, feels merely unobtrusive rather than thin or ill-formed. We meet John, he gets a rudimentary but sturdy backstory in his dead wife and support pup Daisy, an extremely foolhardy thug kills the pooch, and it’s off to the races. John Wick knew exactly what its audience wanted, and it won them over by giving and giving and giving, with minimal lag time between.

The prioritization of spectacle for spectacle’s sake didn’t just shape John Wick’s plot structure; it dictated the visual makeup of the movie as well. The co-directors shoot John Wick’s most extensive whuppings like grand production numbers in one of Hollywood’s opulent old musicals, keeping the focus on the finely detailed blocking above all else.

Take the rightly vaunted nightclub scene, in which Wick shoots a charging heavyweight three times in the chest to stop him in his tracks, and then once more in the head to confirm the kill before letting him fall into the pool. It all takes place in roughly one and a half seconds, and the camera stays on Reeves just long enough to catch the move and then follow him through the multilevel facility. Leitch and Stahelski always direct the viewer’s sightline toward an element of motion in the frame — you always keep your eye on the dancer’s feet.

The co-directors maximize the impact of their balletic fight routines by privileging the movement of the characters rather than the movement of the camera. They make logical and economical cuts that follow the paths of bodies through space, establishing a coherent visual layout and leading the viewer through it.

The nightclub scene is much more involved than one might realize upon first viewing, wending through a half-dozen rooms and hallways across three floors. Break it down shot by shot, and you’ll find that every edit serves to follow the focal point of combat, the usual pattern being the cut from John Wick striking an enemy to the reverse shot of that enemy falling into or out of something. So long as they stay sharp-eyed, viewers won’t miss a single second of the action.

It’s the mark of a great film to make what has been intensely labored over feel effortless in its execution. The most seductive quality of John Wick is how easy it makes this all look, as if constructing a brilliant action flick required little more than picking someone cool and setting them loose on an all-out killing spree.

Filmmakers rarely stumble into excellence, however. Stahelski and Leitch calculated each and every move, synthesized influences with their personal artistic style, and in doing so they pulled off some dizzyingly complex set pieces. It was no minor feat to elevate the act of totally owning into a refined art form.