John Wick is not a high-concept film. The plot is easily summarized in one sentence: Keanu Reeves goes on a roaring rampage of revenge after the Russian mob kills his dog and steals his car. Obviously there’s more to the plot than that, but on the surface that’s what can basically be expected. This genre of film is popular with Liam Neeson, who made countless forgettable movies like that in the past years. His gravelly voice and determination once provided box-office hits popular with action-fans, but the effect wore off; those types of films lost their charm, as well as what made them watchable. The John Wick franchise might share a lot with the revenge genre, but it has an additional key component: technique. John Wick and its two sequels are a love letter to stunts and action; their whole goal is to perfect the movement of stunt action.
To make a good comedy, it’s key to get funny stars and writers; to make a successful action movie, the star needs to be a badass, sure, but the director needs to know what looks cool. When it comes to the Taken franchise, most people remember the speech and the infamous scene of Liam Neeson climbing a fence in more than ten shots. Otherwise, the action sequences are depicted mostly by shaky cam and short-succession edits, with the violence not landing a hit with impact. For the John Wick films, Keanu Reeves’ stoicism and everyman qualities certainly are a key component to the movies, but the true secret to the movies’ success lies on the shoulders of the directors, stuntmen, and camera operators.
Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment, took a risk by hiring two first-time directors for John Wick — Chad Stahelski and David Leicht (the latter was not credited, but he still got recognition). Prior to that film, the duo were stuntmen and stunt coordinators. Stahleski coordinated the stunts for two of the Expendable movies, and was Keanu Reeve’s stunt double on The Matrix. Leitch worked on The Bourne Ultimatum, and doubled for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Their IMDB credits surpass most actors, and their credits show their work. They saw the script for Wick, and right from the start wanted to do a proper action movie — to bring their knowledge and experience to the forefront. This is the reason why the movie is so unique; instead of a tornado of guns and punches, it’s like a ballet of battles and ballistics.
Revenge movies with guns akimbo are so common that John Wick only made $14.4 million on its opening weekend off a $30 million budget. The trailer alone could not do the movie justice, but once word of mouth spread, the movie was able to attract a larger audience, making $43 million in the domestic box office and $76 million worldwide. The first movie never planned for a sequel, instead ending on a final note of John Wick going back into retirement, but with modest success brought a re-thinking of those plans, and John Wick 2 was given the go-ahead. Chad Stahelski continued to work on the franchise, while David Leicht left the project and went on to direct Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and the upcoming Hobbs & Shaw movie.
The problem with many sequels is that they try and recreate the first movie, only slightly bigger. Many super hero movies will add another villain or recycle a problem (i.e., instead of the hero’s daughter being taken, it’s his wife); John Wick 2 is similar in that John Wick is again out for revenge, but this time his dog wasn’t re-killed, and he got his car back. The team behind the sequel wanted to make the movie bigger by adding more elaborate stunts and newer locations, as well as expanding the action beyond judo throws and precise headshots. They wanted a brand new experience that allowed the viewer to see similar action sequences, but without feeling bored with blandness.
The bigger budget for the sequel allowed them to add more carfu, newer fire arms, a series of highly trained assassins, and more explosions. They not only went bigger — they also went wider, developing the world of The Continental and introducing the customs of this assassin world. John Wick 3 is no different, bringing in more exotic locations, expensive sets, and animal stunts into the mix. The still of John Wick on the horse is not even the coolest equestrian moment in the movie; long sequences, precise movements, and army of extras are the reason that this movie is more than just action — it’s art.
In John Wick 3 there is a sequence where a criminal leader/dance coach demands her new dancers to repeat a routine. The camera pans down to their broken toenails, bruised feet, and exhausted body; despite the pain, the teacher demands perfection. The dancers need to hit every mark, and land with silent tap after being thrown across the room. The John Wick franchise takes a similar philosophy — it’s all choreography and dance. Every character is a partner, matching the flow of the performer, making sure that every strike and shot that lands, and does so with the right amount of thwomp. John Wick’s gunshots and punches are the steps in the routine, his grapples are the stances, and every throw is akin to a twirl or pirouette.
With long takes and very little time to recover, the movies are more than just how many times can Keanu Reeves kill a man with their own momentum — they are a dedication to perfection. Watch the series again, and the flurry of twirls and flailing of appendages is reminiscent of a ballet. The brutal shots will make the audience wince in pain, but they are not sloppy. Chad Stahelski and David Leicht know the dance, and want to show the artistic perfection that goes into making a great action movie.