Since the mid-1980s when the action movie really cemented itself in the place previously held by disaster movies by combining elements of those with adventure and thriller (and sometimes a bit of horror) it’s had its ups and downs – for every Die Hard there has a been a Killswitch or Speed 2 – but in John Wick it seems a new generation of action cinema has reached a fairly spectacular peak.
Following in the footsteps of the ‘revenge’ style movies that had been previously highlighted in the mainstream by Taken it is a sub-genre that has been kicking about, predominantly in direct to video fare, since at least the mid-1990s and it is a brand of movie Steven Seagal once stood at the (not especially lofty) pinnacle of.
Generally the plot of these films sees the hero wronged, usually by the abduction of a loved one, and go on a one-man mission to destroy the private army of whoever the bad guy happens to be. An early version of this can be seen in Commando which, like many of the movies of this ilk, also has a few other subplots thrown in usually something romantic and something vaguely political, but always disastrously underdeveloped.
In John Wick writer Derek Kolstad entirely does away with any of these extras, and barely develops the revenge angle, to present a story of action cinema in its purest form that is expertly handled by former stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch and their star Keanu Reeves.
The plot, loose as it is, sees our titular anti-hero, John Wick – a retired hitman of great skill and renown – seeking revenge against his former employer after his son kills Wick’s dog and steals his car. This flimsy framework is the set up a series of action sequences that are, even in the often-jaded world of modern action cinema, spectacular.
The sequences are largely based around what has been dubbed ‘gun-fu’, highly influenced by The Matrix (unsurprising considering the directors and star all worked on that film) and in various locations show an astonishing combination of close quarters combat and gun play.
What makes them particularly well executed is that we see comparatively extended shots of the action rather than the hyper fast cutting of some action cinema. This makes the whole thing more convincing and does the rare thing of at least appearing to show us the big name A-lister taking part in the stunt work – and based on Reeves’ history a fair chunk of this is likely the man himself performing.
Alongside the action a kind of parallel world of underground organised crime is created where assassins frequent a hotel where it seems a truce is, supposedly, obeyed, while the real world plays no part in proceedings – even the police aware of the situation and just letting it happen. This reminded me of the underground assassin culture attempted in the movie version of Wanted, but here it is far more successful in its simplicity as Ian McShane (always Lovejoy to me I’m afraid) has some kind of unexplained ruling power over it.
While the film did reach a point of too much of a good thing being a bit overwhelming for me, it is undeniable that John Wick could certainly become touchstone moment of action cinema much like Die Hard, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Matrix and others have before it.
But, in a world of some truly awful action cinema, its real triumph comes in telling a story through a lot of excellently executed set piece scenes that, unlike many others in recent years, actually make sense and progress the film without resorting to crude visual effects or crude cinematic shortcuts in general.