There is a trend in filmmaking to jump on a popular bandwagon. Every successful film or idea has countless imitators. Think of all the films that followed The Matrix or the current glut of comic book movies. One of the trends that has dominated the last decade of action films is the hand held camera and staccato editing perfected by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy. While it worked in that film it has been used countless times to less success. Done well clever and quick editing has the ability to make any actor appear to be able to fight like Bruce Lee but taken the balletic beauty away from action films. We started to see a return to a more traditional action in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) . He was able to do this having built a film around former MMA fighter Gina Carano, he could stand back with a static camera and let her show her fighting ability. Matthew Vaughn repeated the trick earlier this year with the fantastically choreographed church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service. While other films have prided themselves on the high number of edits within a scene, Kingsman actually disguised the cuts making the takes look longer than they actually are. But that film made the camera a character moving around the heart of the action. These could well have been the early stages of a new direction, a direction that has really taken shape in the form of Keanu Reeves’ revenge thriller John Wick.
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a background in stunt work and have spent the past work in second unit direction. Stahelski was Keanu Reeves stunt double on the Matrix. While the story is reminiscent of Payback (1999) (or previous incarnations of Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter) or any one of the Taken films, stylistically it has far more in common with Hong Kong action from the late 80’s and early 90’s, films from directors like Tsui Hark, John Woo and Ringo Lam. They turned action, violence and bloodshed into art, Chow Yun-Fat carving his way through his enemies with a gun in each hand became as much a dance as a fight. These films had a huge influence on Hollywood and European cinema and can be seen in films like Die Hard (1988), Nikita (1990), Point Break(1991) and El Mariachi (1992)/Desperado (1995).
But like any art movement it didn’t stand still, it developed. Paul Greengrass and the Jason Bourne movies weren’t a new direction, they were a development of what started in Hong Kong in the 80’s. This is why John Wick may also not be a change in direction but just a steppingstone to the development of the genre. The thing that holds directors back from the John Wick approach is simple, it is easier to build a fight scene in the edit than it is to choreograph one. There will be other films that take a lead from John Wick and many that don’t, but it could be an exciting time.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned, the one key thing. For the film to influence others it needs to be both good and successful, is it? A moderate hit on its domestic release that has gained a cult following. In the UK it has been well received. There appears to be at least one sequel on the way. A revenge film with both more humour and more humanity than taken and its copycats. A action film with a sense of fun. A violent and poetic real world fantasy that looks like a comic book on the screen. Keanu Reeves is brilliant in a part that he is perfect for but with a world weary edge that he couldn’t have done a few years ago.