Monday, February 08, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: John Wick

Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap as an actor, in my opinion. He may not be the world's greatest living thespian, or even in the top 50, but he's not really a bad actor either. He has an unflappably stoic persona, and a very limited range, which sometimes makes his more emotional scenes a bit uncomfortable, but he also has an appealing presence on screen. It's what made him so effective as Neo in the Matrix films, but also made him woefully ridiculous in Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, I've always been a fan, and I enjoy seeing the choices he makes in his career. He's a guy who clearly fell in love with the art of stuntwork and fight choreography, and has molded his career around some solidly populous dramas and romantic comedies that allow him to make a few flops like 47 Ronin. His directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, reads as an ode to Hong Kong filmmaking and old school fight choreography. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, as he clearly understands how to use the camera in concert with the actors dueling on screen, and is probably the purest representation of that style ever made with an English speaking audience in mind.

As the Michael Bay-ification of summer blockbusters continues, with summers full of overstuffed, overly CGI-assisted tentpole action films, it's good to see that the art of the stunt is not gone. For years now the most interesting work being done for fans of no-frills action has been done in the direct-to-video market, where fight choreography still places emphasis on the choreography part of that equation, and a lack of time and money leads to a narrative paring down to the absolute essentials of a story. Films carrying on the tradition of Asian action filmmaking (simple plots to support exquisitely crafted motion) like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, or even the last two Universal Soldier sequels, have been offering straightforward, mythic, solidly constructed action thrills of a type that seems almost nonexistent in the current crop of billion dollar blockbusters. It's as if the stuntmen and fight coordinators, finding they weren't as in-demand with the major studios as they used to be, went off and started making their own movies. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much what's happened.

John Wick was written by Derek Kolstad, whose only previous credits were a pair of direct to video Dolph Lundgren flicks, and it marks the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a stuntman who began his career with the original Point Break in 1991. John Wick clearly showcases a love of physical stunts and well staged fight scenes. While some of the shots were enhanced with CGI, mainly blood effects & green screen composites for some of the car stunts, most of what you see on the screen was actually rehearsed and filmed as you see it. The film also cuts out a lot of the bloat that can creep into action movies, and the story can be tidily summed up as 'ex-assassin gets back in the game for one last time on a quest for revenge. There are some quirks to that story (the revenge is for a cute puppy), some details to add some depth (the revenge is against the son of his old boss), and some impressive nods at world building. In fact, a lot has been made about that world building, as John Wick inhabits the type of criminal underworld normally only seen in comic books. All the assassins hang out at The Continental, a hotel with an elaborate rule system to keep its clients safe and private. All transactions are paid for with gold coins, the only currency apparently accepted among the criminals in this world. The world that John Wick inhabits is a fun one to spend time in, but the film never gets overly bogged down with these details, as the filmmakers realize it works best as a backdrop for bone crunching fistfights and hails of gunfire.

Those fistfights and gunfights carry a very satisfying weight to them, as they are delivered by a crew who knows intimately how to photograph bodies in motion, and who understands the importance of utilizing the space within a frame. The action in John Wick features a lot of long takes, and some unobtrusive editing, that gives everything a believable physicality even when the action reaches ridiculous proportions. Chad Stahelski tends to roam around the scene with his camera, defining the contours of a room or hallway so that when the fighting starts he can cut within that area and the audience will be able to quickly follow along and orient themselves.

A sequel is currently in the works for John Wick, which is a no brainer considering how well the film performed both critically and commercially, but I have my doubts. John Wick is so blissfully self contained, a true standout when most films these days seem to come preplanned as trilogies (with the final film split in two, of course), that the prospect of another journey of revenge for this character seems like a dubious proposition. Of course there's that fun and detailed world to explore, but I worry that exploring it too deeply will lead to a more complicated mythology than this story needed (a la the Matrix sequels). Still, everyone involved in making this films seems to have learned the right lessons from the action films they cut their teeth on, so at the very least it should be great to look at, and exciting to watch.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

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