A few days ago I watched John Wick, and I will be completely honest: I haven’t recovered. Somehow the tropiest, most uncreative film (the villain not only kicks the dog, he kills it [traumatically]) managed to rope me in and keep me engaged for a full two hours and then several days after that.
The only thing I knew about John Wick going in was that Keanu Reeves’ stunt coordinator from The Matrix was involved and that the varied minds of Twitter thought that the assassin underworld of the film’s fiction was pretty cool. I thought I would really care about the assassins and their network (I love some good hinted worldbuilding). I ended up being wrong, as I didn’t much care for that at all, but I was fascinated by the violence.
John Wick renders gun violence beautiful. There’s no way around it. It turns the destruction of the human body, of the human brain, into a wonderful choreographed experience on par with the most beautiful dance performance.
This makes sense to me. After all, The Raid: Redemption and its sequel have taken the fist and the melee weapon to their very limits. In the realm of punching people there just isn’t that much left to do.
That’s a strange thing to say, of course, because we all know that the martial arts film (in its many genres) is all about elucidating an answer to the question “what can a body do?” The Raid: Redemption gestured to a far outlier of physical performance; The Raid 2 squeezed the body itself like a sponge and left it bone-dry.
The progression of raising the stakes has two places to go after The Raid: you can increase the gore or you can change the stakes themselves entirely. John Wick chooses the second option and defers to melee weapons or fists only when they are necessitated by either the plot or the disarming of John Wick himself, our assassin protagonist. For example, look at the clip below (the first scene is my favorite in the film) (please watch the entire thing).
WARNING: THIS SCENE IS SUPER GRAPHIC AND VIOLENT
What John Wick gives us here is a world where the punches and kicks of old become bullets. It is the same choreography style–like a Jackie Chan or Jet Li film, Reeves balances his responses to each different enemy perfectly, dispatching them with ease. Where Chan might have poked them in the eyes or Li might have kicked the inside of their knee, Reeves merely shoots them directly in the head. The formerly “impersonal” kill of the gun becomes intimately personal and close, implicitly arguing that the stakes of the bodily action film have changed here. Guns are no longer the sole domain of the spray and pray antics of Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone; they are tools used in their own way to achieve their own kinds of ends and are as explicitly attached to human action and intention as Keanu Reeves’ own hands and feet are.
[It is worth noting that the film dispenses with its own logic at the end for the final fight.]
There’s something in the wind about the “surgical” action star these days. They’re single-use tools (every role Jason Statham has ever played) who cannot help but survive at all costs (Mark Wahlberg across the board). It is the evolution of the Reagan-era hypermasculine hero who excels at bodily fitness.
Schwarzenegger and Stallone were atomic bombs that exploded and rained hell down on their enemies. Reeves and Statham (and to some degree The Rock in Faster) are computer viruses meant to shut down particular ways of life. The work of connecting this up to political programmes of the past and future (mutually assured destruction vs. the war on terror) isn’t difficult to do.
In any case, John Wick offers us a world beyond the physical and relational horizon lines of the action films of the past 40-50 years, and I’m very intrigued to see what filmmakers who are inspired by this film will go on to make and remix from it.