DISCLAIMER: The following article contains spoilers for the John Wick film series. Read on at your own discretion.
There’s probably no film series in recent memory that has been as consistently well made and enjoyable as the John Wick franchise. Each film gets better and better. The aesthetics look more beautiful, the fight scenes are more epic and the quality of storytelling becomes a lot more endearing.
But it wasn’t too long ago that everyone assumed this film would just be a B-rated movie with a famous movie-star to attract a small audience and then be immediately panned or forgotten. So how did a seemingly throwaway action movie become an international hit? There’s a few reasons and I’ll break them down for you. So, let’s talk about John Wick.
One of the key reasons behind John Wick’s success is because of Keanu Reeves. While we can commend the performances of Ian McShane, Lance Riddick or Willem Dafoe- all of them are ultimately replaceable. You can get anyone to play Winston or Charon or any of the many antagonists- but you can’t get anyone else to play John Wick.
Keanu has that draw to him that many leading actors lack. That’s why instead of getting an older actor in his sixties for the role (as originally intended) the producers of the film wanted to get a film veteran, someone audiences had an established connection with. Now there may be many actors that have better range than Keanu, but none of them are anywhere near as fun to watch.
It’s just really fun to watch his fight scenes and for some reason he makes these incredibly cheesy and clunky lines of dialogue actually believable. Without him there’s no way this film would have been picked up for a franchise.
But one of the biggest drivers behind what makes this film series so special is the action. In a market dominated by shaky cam and rapid edits, John Wick offers a brief reprieve by filming these beautifully choreographed fight sequences as statically as possible. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a fight is more engaging if you can actually see it, but it also helps that director Chad Stahelski was a stuntman before switching careers.
This previous role of his undoubtedly inspired the films grounded choreography. Instead of shooting outlandish kicks and punches, the film makers opted for a more judo based fighting style- which they incorporated with the films gun play, another element that makes the John Wick series so unique.
A common complaint about horror movies is that the protagonists decisions seem really dumb and therefore it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them as they’re getting gutted like a fish. In the same way, audiences question why an elite marksman would be so bad at shooting people?
John Wick eliminates this concern by presenting an elite killer who is, y’know, actually good at killing people. He makes smart decisions. His experience allows him to know the value of waiting out in cover until an enemy passes, or being able to figure out exactly where an opponent is so that you could shoot them through a wall.
But the creators also ensure that the bad guys are actually competent. A good few henchmen give John Wick a lot of problems. He often runs out of bullets, has to change his tactics and think fast in order to survive. Despite being an elite assassin, he suffers from some wear and tare along the way and that’s what makes the series so compelling.
In the most recent film, there’s a few scenes in which John Wick would have certainly died if he did not have the respect of his opponents who wanted to grant him a fair fight. It’s both Reeves’ film presence and the excellent storytelling that makes this decision on their part so believable.
When you see a film like this, you know what to expect. You know that in the end John Wick will win and live to fight another day. But it’s the role of the film maker to forget that fact. To make the audience think, even if it’s for just a moment, that the main character could die. That gut wrenching feeling when you see the fight turn and you think to yourself “oh shit, he might not make it” that’s good storytelling.
What makes the story of John Wick so compelling is that it constantly builds upon itself. Its themes and characters obviously take some influence from film noir and the director himself has referenced neo-noir films such as Point Blank as inspiration.
With Wick you have your classic anti-hero in the form of an assassin who is just enough of a lighter shade of grey to make him sympathetic. Each film has their respective Femme Fatale character, often times a rival assassin. You have your seedy underworld, gritty realism and creative use of lighting to establish tone which gives the film it’s own identity.
On top of these gorgeous set pieces, like the hall of mirrors in John Wick 2 or the glass pent house in the most recent film, John Wick has more heart than a lot of these films. The story itself starts out with the death of Wick’s wife, which is softened by her final gift to him- a dog. When the dog is taken away from him in an act of needless cruelty, Wick sets out on a bloody crusade against a Russian mobster’s son.
Throughout the series you see Wick trying to justify his revenge, often citing that “it was more than just a dog” but in my opinion this isn’t really necessary. Losing a pet, particularly one that you’ve bonded with, is on par with losing a member of your family. In film you’ll often notice that audiences tend to be more sympathetic to the voiceless and adorable characters such as Groot.
A dog plays that same role. Because like Groot, a dog holds qualities in their personality that we as a society value. Loyalty, friendliness, kindness- the fact that they don’t or are incapable of verbally showcasing these qualities doesn’t matter because we as an audience are able to sympathise with it far more easily than a human character who has to overcome a lot of obstacles to gain similar levels of sympathy- such as not being annoying, having depth, a likeable personality- etc.
Each film engages in more world building, establishing more rules and fleshing out more characters. My only concern with this franchise moving forward is that this demand for more Wick all the time is going to diminish the quality of production and storytelling. I mean, how can you top having a gun fight on a horse or killing a guy with a book? You can’t! But I’d like to see them try.
In the end John Wick revitalises the action-crime genre with it’s unique underground world, it’s ensemble cast and gorgeous fight sequences. In a market where you can churn out countless forgettable, choppy revenge thrillers, Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski offers something worth watching.