This weekly column is about the celebration of action films. I try to focus on the films of the late ’80s and early to mid-1990s, the unarguable golden age of the action genre. During that decade and change, we got hard-hitting films from guys who would go on to be superstars–guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme. Once the sun set on those glory years, we were left with an endless barrage of PG-13 spectacle, films that were more CGI than action. The heart had gone out of the genre. That is, of course, until late last year when a unlikely action movie hit the theaters to much critical and fan praise. That movie was the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick, and it is, without a doubt, one of the best ’90s action movies that didn’t come out in the ’90s.
John Wick doesn’t follow the path of today’s typical blockbuster. It’s grounded, focusing less on big, computer-generated set pieces and more on intense, brutal, and up-close action. It drops you into a world and lets you learn about it as you go. There’s no big info dump, no overdone explanation of the rules. We are just given enough to understand that John Wick was once a very bad man who everyone was – and still is, really – afraid of. That’s all you need to know.
The world-building in John Wick is perfectly done, and that’s due to Derek Kolstad’s razor-sharp script. There’s a sense throughout the film of a bigger story turning behind the scenes, this underground of assassins and mercenaries that we are only given a glimpse into. How does the economy of the gold coins work? How do all these guys and girls operate so publicly? What were the details of John’s last “impossible” job? We don’t know, because we don’t need to. These are just little details that make the world feel lived in and real. It’s brilliantly done.
The action is topnotch, as well. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch never shy away from the fight. They keep a steady frame and show you every shot to the head and punch to the throat. Wick’s tour of havoc isn’t one filled with big explosions and harrowing chases. It’s a path of destruction waged one clip at a time. It’s personal, and it feels that way the entire time. It’s this immediacy that gives John Wick that classic action movie feel. This movie could have easily been set in 1989 and it would still have worked just as well.
Of course, you can’t talk about John Wick without talking about the incredible performance from Keanu Reeves. He plays the tortured and violent Wick to perfection. Unlike other, more recent action movies, our hero never seems like he’s enjoying himself. He’s getting revenge, pure and simple. He’s brutal and efficient, often shooting dudes from an inch away. There’s nothing that feels like a stunt or joke, he’s a man on a very deadly mission and he’s not going to stop for anything or anyone.
The supporting cast is mind-blowing as well. Michael Nyquist, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, William Defoe, and Ian McShane all give awesome performances. The superb work done by the cast helps to build the world of John Wick and give the movie a heart. It’s a bloody and dark heart, but it’s a heart nonetheless. You get the feeling when you are watching the movie that all these characters have a story, that they aren’t just there to take a bullet or deliver some exposition. You want to know more about all of them, and that’s part of what makes this movie so damn good.
John Wick is a gift from the action gods. It’s like a long-lost relic from a time we accepted was over. Hopefully, its success and already-announced sequel will lead to more films like this. I love big summer blockbusters as much as the next guy, but more straightforward, feet-on-the-ground action movies would be very, very welcome. More John Wick is something I think we can all get behind.