Why 'John Wick' Stands Out in the Age of Cinematic Universes
[This story contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum]
Though it’s hard to choose one moment in particular, there’s a specific scene in the wonderfully tense new action film John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the purpose of which is solely to show us John Wick as being an imperfect fighter. It’s in the protracted third act, as John is facing off against a group of martial-arts masters in an inner sanctum of the New York outpost of the assassin-friendly Continental Hotel. Though we’ve seen John Wick murder plenty of men (and a few women) by hand and by gun, he seems extremely outmatched here. He’s only fighting two men, but they keep forcing him to back off his ground, punching and kicking him into row after row of glass columns in a stylish underground chamber. There’s two remarkable points to note: the shot in which this happens extends for maybe 30 unbroken seconds, and there’s no shaky cam or obvious tricks to try to hide the action.
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Action of some kind is easy to find in most mainstream films these days, whether it’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Fast and Furious films, Star Wars or the like. But it’s exceedingly rare to watch an action movie where you know for a fact that an actor is doing his or her own stunts. There are currently two standout franchises where this exception is the rule: the Mission: Impossible series and the John Wick films. With the M:I films, which has two more movies on the way in the next few years, Tom Cruise has put himself through such an intense amount of physical rigor that it’s become an easy joke to wonder what exactly could happen next for his secret agent Ethan Hunt. When, for example, you literally climb up the tallest building in the world, or are left dangling from a rope at the bottom of a helicopter, or do a multi-thousand-foot skydive off a plane, where else can you go? (Let’s reiterate the real hope, which is that Ethan Hunt goes to space. Ethan Hunt needs to go to space.)
The John Wick films are a little bit more earthbound. Yes, Keanu Reeves — who has excelled in different roles over the years, but truly found the perfect part as the terse ex-assassin lured back into the business — does a lot of his own stunts in these films. But the stunts he’s doing are rarely quite as death-defying as what Cruise does. Each of the John Wick films has gradually re-emphasized that even though Reeves is in his fifties, he’s still physically fit enough to both pose a threat to a lot of different tough-guy types and throw his body into violent battles with aplomb. There’s almost something comic about Reeves’ ability to do so. It’s arguably no mistake that both John Wick: Chapter 2 and Parabellum feature brief images of the silent comedian Buster Keaton, whose own propensity for stunt work could be remarkably death-defying in an era when special effects and wire work weren’t exactly in large supply.
The premise of Parabellum manages to further the mythology in the previous John Wick entries, and be almost infuriatingly simple. At the end of Chapter Two, John is deemed “excommunicado” for having conducted business on the Continental grounds — to wit, he killed someone in the hotel, which is a big no-no. Even though his old friend Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the NY Continental, gives him an hourlong head start, Parabellum begins as John realizes that just about everyone in the Big Apple, let alone the rest of the world, is gunning for him, literally and figuratively. His quest to restore his status and extricate himself from the world of murder dovetails with ... well, a lot of murder.
The John Wick franchise has quickly become one of the best, most exciting, and most career-reviving series, over just five years (and without being the kind of hit that makes close to a billion dollars worldwide). A large reason why is the action. It’s not just that director Chad Stahelski frames and shoots each action sequence so well, though he absolutely does. The number of set pieces in this film featuring shots that don’t cut away every time a combatant lands a blow or gets shot is ... well, basically all of them. The choreography of these action sequences is coherent and clear, and you’re always able to understand where each character exists in the space onscreen, making each punch, each shot and each kick even more visceral.
But equally visceral is what you’re seeing in those eloquently composed shots. Reeves and the other actors are really getting into the muck of fighting. It might seem shocking to read about how Halle Berry, playing an old friend of John’s with whom he reconnects in Morocco, had to train for six months to be in fighting shape for this film (especially since Berry’s only in about 20 to 25 minutes). But the extended fight and shootout in which she appears is full of long, clear camerawork, courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen, where there’s no doubt that Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry are going head to head with unnamed baddies, not stuntmen and stuntwomen.
The bloody joy of the John Wick franchise is that you’re not watching a series of special-effects-laden tricks. Too many action films, or films that have a handful of fight scenes, suffer from having incoherently staged and composed battles. (The Marvel movies have this problem often, though there is an exception: Captain America: Civil War, with the hangar fight scene between all the heroes. That film’s second unit directors were ... Stahelski and David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick.) Keanu Reeves, whose strengths lie in being taciturn (he speaks even less in this film than its predecessors), is more willing than most actors to put his body through the ringer for entertainment value. The good news is this: in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the choice pays off in spades.
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