The John Wick films rewrote the book for action movies in the late 2010s, establishing its genre style and creating a myriad of big-budget Hollywood clones.
Much like Liam Neeson’s first film, Taken It’s easy to overlook that John Wick initially came out to a lack of expectations. The audience was so accustomed to the “retired assassin seeking revenge” cliche in 2014 that the twist of revenge on the dead dog seemed more like a parody of that cliché than anything else. The trailers weren’t the most awe-inspiring either. Keanu Reeves wasn’t in the cast, an actor that although well-loved, was still reeling from more than a decade’s worth of disappointing films following the Matrix trilogy.
However, all that changed when word of mouth started spreading. In a year filled with fantastic action films, John Wick was the year’s biggest surprise success: a no-holds-barred thriller that combines stylized gun-fu shootouts and a wacky, but fascinating underground assassin culture backdrop. Nine years later, that film inspired three critically acclaimed sequels, including the recently released John Wick: Chapter 4 which re-energized Reeves his career and placed John Wick atop the pantheon of action movie icons. The film’s most significant achievement was systemic: convincing Hollywood to imitate John Wick nearly every time.
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John Wick Redefined Action Movies
Hollywood typically goes through “phases” that include action films. They imitate the basic idea and the choreography of a film to reclaim the spark that was in the bottle. This was the case for all the 1990s die-hard replicas. It was during the first 2000s movies resorted to The Matrix’s bullet-time slow-motion effects and leather/latex wardrobe. The Bourne Trilogy inspired a new wave of fight scenes that relied on disorienting shaken camera “realism.” This style was amplified by the film Taken’s unanticipated success and has led to many films in which esteemed, older movie stars routinely fight an opponent using shortcuts (i.e. The Equalizer, Three Days to Kill).
John Wick had a premise that reminded me of old movies: A widower who, after his son is a Russian mobster, takes his vehicle and murders the dog he left behind, returns to his previous life as “Baba Yag,” a vicious, unstoppable hitman. Director Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, and their years of professional stuntmen’s experience made it possible to create an action film that was full of action but had few clear scenes. The audience could see all the action, so they could see the 50-year-old Reeves fight goons, and take endless punches back. It had more in common with John Woo and Park Chan-wook and a little like The Matrix — as opposed to a traditional Bourne brawl. For American fans, John Wick was a refreshing alternative to any non-Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mission: Impossible, and Fast & Furious action film. Its sequels merely upped the stakes.
So did its worldbuilding. With each sequel, the John Wick films introduced more vibrant, new characters as well as a variety of lore and mythological elements that, despite being simple (i.e., no fighting on the Continental Hotel grounds, upholding an oath of blood and blood of a Marker) gave the neo-noir world a distinct brand of its own. Not to mention the real dangers that kept Wick’s life-or-death struggle going on. Many celebrities appeared during the run-up to the film’s success with small roles (Clarke Peters and Franco Nero), big roles (Willem Dafoe and Anjelica Huston) as well as odd castings (Common and Boban Marjanovic), and more explicit action film homages such as the Raid’s Cecep Rahman and YayanRuhian. John Wick: Chapter 4 is currently featuring its most high-profile cast to date with actors like Donnie Yen Hiroyuki Sanada, and Bill Skarsgard to join Reeves and the franchise’s mainstays Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, and the late Lance Reddick in Wick’s world. Everyone is enjoying their time and there’s more.
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John Wick had Hollywood following a new trend
This isn’t even taking into account the popularity of films influenced by John Wick. Hollywood attempted to replicate the popularity of Reeves and Stahelski in the second decade of the 2000s especially following the release of Charlize Theron of her thriller Atomic Blonde. Despite being an adaptation of a graphic novel, the 2017 movie — directed by Leitch is extremely Wick-like with its characters with stylized color palettes and sometimes exhausting, hardcore action scenes. Lorraine Broughton’s 10-minute single-take staircase battle was a lyric for itself and, coming several months after John Wick: Chapter 2, Atomic Blonde was a clear indication of the Wick formula going mainstream.
Not all Wick clones are the same and certainly, not all are memorable or even excellent. But all have at the very least: 1. A master killer/assassin, 2. A stylized underground culture that is geared toward hired killers, or 3. A type of gunfight or physical battle where the actors execute their actions. They are featured in The Accountant and Hotel Artemis as well as Extraction, Nobody, Gunpowder Milkshake, and The Prodigy. It’s a sizable list that Hollywood intends to grow shortly.
Many of these films were born out of the Johnwick creators’ involvement or mark on the film industry. Leitch created the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train, while Stahelski was the producer on Day Shift. Sam Hargrave, a former stuntman directed Extract and its sequel. Leitch’s production company, 87North Productions helped to finance Wick’s similar films like Nobody or Kate. The films marked a major change in the quality of action regardless of their critical ratings. Thanks to John Wick’s filmmaking studios, filmmakers, and studios have more tools to coach actors on performing stunts, and the actors seem really into the process. After years of poor cam quality, which made fights hard to watch and could be unclear geographically, it’s an entirely different experience for action.
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The Legacy of John Wick
The John Wick films are straightforward and this is the reason they stand out from other films. These films are pure action movies that have been dedicated to their craft. They also set the standard for great fight scenes thanks to Stahelski’s vast experience and Reeves’ unwavering devotion to his character. However bizarre its lore, the best performances in a Johnwick movie are found in the action. The stunts are nothing more than bloody monologues. The fans are eager to watch almost three hours of John Wik: Chapter 4. They eagerly await its spinoffs Ballerina, and The Continental. The moviegoers know that the excitement is real.
People are still living in Hollywood’s John Wick phase, where the only expectations a John Wick sequel must surpass are it’s own. The rest of the world will consider Mr. Wick’s story to be a template for making more action-oriented films. The industry of entertainment is certainly taking notice.