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Action Movie Revival: Keanu Reeves Returns as John Wick

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By Hubert Ta

As John Wick (Keanu Reeves) flees down a tunnel in the catacombs of Rome, he alternates between a pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun to deal with the seemingly endless number of henchmen and grunts chasing him. With brutal efficiency and speed, John ducks, bobs, weaves and retaliates against a wall of gunfire with headshot after headshot, each with extreme prejudice, a bloody spray and occasional double taps for good measure.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” continues Keanu Reeves’s triumphant return to action movies, and marks a resurgence for action thrillers that prioritize slick action, revenge fantasies and a polished cinematic flair for an endless bullet parade. The plot continues where the first left off: John Wick is pulled into another job as a hitman, but is forced to fight off dozens of gangsters once a contract is placed on his head. The saga has come to be highly regarded by critics and action movie fans, and it stands out as one of the best action film franchises of the last decade.

What makes the “John Wick” films particularly special in the oversaturated action genre (which includes everything from the car chases of the “Fast and Furious” series to the feats of Marvel and DC superheroes) is that they combine the style and technology of today’s action films with the roots of the golden age of action heroes in the 1980s and with the choreographed fluidity of Hong Kong action cinema. No more shaky cam, stunt double replacements, or quick cuts to hide sloppily-designed fights.

Actors perform their own fight scenes and the result is more realistic and stylish, making the films much more beautiful to watch. Keanu Reeves’s training process, documented with featurettes and testimonials before the movie’s release, translate well into the film, as each choreographed fight feels natural, intuitive and reactive. The way John holds a gun, maneuvers through a hallway and even drives a car looks professional and polished. There isn’t an instance where the action breaks your immersion; The thought of stunt doubles, special effects and camera tricks don’t even cross your mind.

“John Wick Chapter 2” and its predecessor employ the techniques of “gun fu” to stylize their frantic gunplay, knife fights and close quarters hand-to-hand combat. Invented by John Woo in his 1986 film “A Better Tomorrow,” gun fu is a style of action choreography that mixes the flourish of Hong Kong martial arts and the fast pace of gunfights. Actors perform their own stunts, highlighting the interplay of hand-to-hand combat and firearms in long takes and extended fight sequences. All the while, focus is centered on the protagonist, who rips through a flood of enemies to reach his objective. This style of portraying firefights has since appeared in many Hong Kong and Hollywood films, the most pertinent being “The Matrix,” “Hard Boiled” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”

For “John Wick,” this gun fu is further combined with classic action movie tropes such as the one man army and the use of practical and special effects to enhance shootouts. John Wick dismantles his enemies with one, two or three shots, but also barrages them with fists and kicks, uses them as a human shield or turns their weapon against them.

Like other revenge fantasies before it, blood sprays from each victim, more muted than “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” but profuse enough that it accentuates the neo-noir style of the film. Bright neon colors, pulsing sounds, the thudding echoes of gunshots and the roar of American muscle cars add to the bold feel of the film. Furthermore, the franchise builds its lore, and thus creates a world for the mythos of John Wick as “the Baba Yaga/Boogeyman,” the nickname for the most feared assassin of the underground criminal world.  

In contrast to most of today’s action movies, the “John Wick” franchise moves away from modern tricks like quick cuts and shaky cam, instead reflecting its roots in Hong Kong action cinema and the 1980s unstoppable heroes. “John Wick” is the counterargument to action films like “Jason Bourne” and “Transformers,” and bears more similarities to “Mad Max: Fury Road” as it crafts an experience rather than just a movie. This might be part of a trend in Hollywood, as films mix and equal amount of CGI alongside more practical effects and choreography. Hopefully this trend continues, as “John Wick” is currently an outlier among action films today, and the sheer quality crafted into the film should signal a resurgence of action movies that are fun to watch for both casual fans and critics. A wave of escapist action thriller films that barrage the senses with style and fun would be a welcome retreat from all of the science fiction and superhero films that currently dominate the action genre.