Action, like many simple words, has an array of definitions with the most common ones being movement, an act of will, an engagement between two factions and the bringing about of an alteration by force. Incidentally, all those definitions also sound completely felicitous to mean fight, and in this context, action in films — like several filmmaking aspects that have evolved over time — as a genre, has gone through its own stages of development.
The different phases of action
It started around the 1920s and 30s that was characterised by sword-fighting and swashbuckling heroes like Douglas Fairbanks; moved to the Westerns and war films of the 40s and 50s that gave us classics like Gary Cooper’s Man of the West and Gregory Peck’s The Big Country; saw the birth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond in the 60s with the 70s introducing us to gritty, urban crime dramas like Dirty Harry while also getting paving way for martial art films. The 80s is when the idea of summer blockbusters began with actioners like Lethal Weapon as well as shows like The A-Team.
The 90s, with its rise in budgets, CGI revolution and sequels, turned out to be a new era for the action genre and cemented the positions of stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone as action heroes thanks to their testosterone-fuelled films. The new millennium perfected what the genre became by then only to go on a decline. While superhero films tried changing the terminology for the genre, action films needed that one good film/franchise to bring it back to its old glory. Enter John Wick, a crucial franchise that has over the years redefined the genre by marrying old-school cinema action with today’s fast-paced technology-aided theatrics and modern sensibilities.
Out of ammo
Right before our puppy-loving hitman was forced out of his retirement, action films had taken a back seat in Hollywood. Of course, there were pleasant surprises at irregular intervals like the Taken and Mission: Impossiblefranchises or the larger-than-life Mad Max: Fury Road, Snowpiercer, and Pacific Rim. At a time when Indonesian projects like The Raid and its sequel were winning hearts for their up-close action sequences, Hollywood was mounting extravagant action set-pieces set against the backdrop of superhero films.
But what the film industry desperately needed was, pun intended, a hands-on approach toward action. In other words, Hollywood needed gun-fu, a portmanteau of guns and kung-fu. It’s a style of sophisticated close-quarters gunfight resembling a martial arts battle that combines firearms with hand-to-hand combat and traditional melee weapons that originated in Hong Kong action films and begged to be perfected by American films. Action veteran John Woo popularised it and it was incidentally Keanu Reeves’ Matrix films that made it famous in the West. Unsurprisingly, when Reeves decides to star in a new film made by his Matrix stunt double Chad Stahelski and stunt co-ordinator David Leitch, it was destined to reinvent the genre.
A cut apart
Technically speaking, what makes the John Wick series stand apart is the way it took the best parts of yesteryear’s action sequences and coupled them with today’s highly-choreographed techniques. The hand-to-hand combat sequences or the ones using melee weapons look similar to the ones we’ve enjoyed in classics like Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Jimmy Wang Yu’s Master of the Flying Guillotine (1977), Jackie Chan’s Young Master (1980) and Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991). But Stahelski and Leitch focused on long single takes, abstaining from the rapid cuts and closeup shots that have become synonymous with action films.
Though the action and the unique pattern in which it was shot, cut, and exhibited is the major reason for the John Wick franchise’s success, it’s not the only factor. Gun-fu, which started with Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), launched the heroic bloodshed genre in Hong Kong. The genre, apart from revolving around stylised action sequences, focused on dramatic themes such as brotherhood, duty, honour, and redemption. The John Wick films, with their concepts of crime syndicates, fealty to the High Table, and “business” conducted by adhering to the world’s strict codes, follow the genre’s specifics to the T. Though it was Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) which repurposed gun-fu for the West, it was The Matrix films that familiarised it and John Wick revolutionised it.
With action out of the way, the inspirations for staging and storytelling were, obviously, one too many. Director Chad Stahelski cited The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Point Blank (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and The Killer (1989) as influences for the films while Kolstad attributed the works of Alistair MacLean and Stephen King. Stahelski and Leitch also drew inspiration from the works of Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, William Friedkin, and Sam Peckinpah.
All guns blazing
To come up with the perfection they expect from the shoot, Stahelski and Leitch slogged it off at the pre-production by getting their cinematographers into rehearsals and acclimatising them to their style of heavily choreographed action scenes. For the firearm sequences, they decided to employ the ‘3-gun’ style, based on a shooting competition involving a handgun, a rifle, and a shotgun. This came in handy for accomplishing the close-quarters sequences where Wick wields the gun like a sword and finishes his enemies. Almost all the action sequences are shot with wide angles making every punch, every block, and every bullet shot seen and felt.
The fact that Reeves, thanks to films like the Matrix franchise, 47 Ronin, and Man of Tai Chi, is backed by years of action training, came in very handy for the makers. “When you watch a Jackie Chan movie, you know Jackie Chan is doing kung-fu, you know Jackie Chan jumped off the building. So who do you love? You love Jackie Chan,” Stahelski said during the making of the first installment. “We wanted to do that with John Wick. And with longer takes, wider shots, seeing the intricate choreography, you get to see Keanu doing all that stuff. 90% of what you see is Keanu Reeves. So do you need any backstory? Do you need another character to open a folder that says, ‘John Wick is a badass?’ Or would you rather just see it? Does Keanu Reeves have any credibility problem with John Wick? No. He is a badass.”
For the unversed, Reeves was 49 when the franchise began and despite the experience, he spent four months preparing for his character and the training included Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, standing judo, tactical 3-gun and Center Axis Relock, a shooting system designed for close-quarter combat. What this results in are action sequences that are violent and deadly but also charming, pleasing, and eerily satisfying to watch. Add in some carefully-calculated lights and colours, along with setting the sequences in locations that exude a unique personality — such as nightclubs or heritage buildings — and what we get past the massacres and macabre is a piece of art. This has only evolved over the last four films with the latest outing, John Wick: Chapter 4being the best of the lot when it comes to action and how it’s framed.
The John Wick films, apart from reinventing the action wheel, have also created a watershed moment, opening up a new avenue for action films to traverse on. The team behind it came up with Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde which felt like a film straight out of the same universe, and so did Bob Odenkirk’s Nobody which even reproduced the franchise’s self-awareness and unique sense of humour.
Away from the team, 2016’s Ethan Hawke-starrer In a Valley of Violence was about a man taking it out on a group for threatening his dog. Veteran Jackie Chan too returned to the heroic bloodshed genre with The Foreigner while Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow and Jennifer Garner’s Peppermint played the same game with a female protagonist dealing the cards. Guns Akimbo (2019), Gunpowder Milkshake (2021), Jolt (2021) and The Protégé (2021) were also inspired by the franchise. Similar to stunt directors turning directors with John Wick, Avengers: Endgamestunt coordinator-turned-director with Extraction, a film whose action sequences resembled Wick’s fight poetry.
The franchise too has a few upcoming tricks up its sleeve. Starring Ana de Armas, Ballerina, a spin-off, will expand the series with installments set within the same fictional world. A miniseries titled The Continental is also in the making and will be a prequel to the films.
In less than a decade, John Wick has reclaimed the action genre that relied heavily on CGI, shaky camera movements, and quick edits. The meticulously designed action set-pieces, extensively-choreographed sequences, and long takes that were possible because of impeccable writing made the franchise revitalise the genre. Rolling Stone named the series “The Last Great American Action-Movie Franchise” and given the current state of affairs within the action genre, that’s a claim that cannot be easily disputed. Despite the latest installment being the longest with a runtime of 169 minutes, Reeves’ titular character speaks only 380 words across 103 lines of dialogue. With some spectacular fight sequences, that’s barely a complaint; action, like they always say, really does speak louder than words.