How John Wick changed action movies and no one noticed

Style, grace and elegance aren't terms usually associated with action movies. It's a genre awash with high-octane explosions, brutality and bloodshed, but they aren't often presented with any particularly memorable degree of cinematic skill. Like a black swan somersaulting into a pond of ugly ducklings, 2014's John Wick changed all that with stylishly brutal élan. The Keanu Reeves-led revenge thriller — boldly beginning with the murder of Wick's beloved puppy — is of course still violent, but this is violence captured in a way rarely seen before.

Cold, calculated and effortlessly efficient, Reeves' performance as the titular hitman was a commercial hit, earning roughly four times its budget. John Wick: Chapter 2 expanded on its predecessor's financial success, earning $171.5 million while earning another round of positive reviews for the budding franchise, proving "Baba Yaga" was far from a one-shot wonder. Quite the opposite — John Wick's sharp-suited and sharp-shooting arrival changed action movies forever, including in a few ways no one seemed to notice. Here's how John Wick rewrote the rules for the modern action genre.

Was action pre-John Wick running out of ammo?

To understand John Wick's influence on action movies, let's look at the landscape before October 2014, dotted with films lacking in originality, repeatedly using similar structures and premises. Seven years after The Bourne Ultimatum, the genre felt tired, screaming to well-performing horror and sci-fi pictures: "Go on without me, save yourself!"

Although the occasional gem provided brief respite from the same-old, such as 2009's Taken or 2011's The Raid, mainstream action was being shaped by the "more-is-definitely-more" mindset. Perhaps this was inspired by the Midas touch of the MCU; either way, the result was a slew of action outings that were CGI-heavy assaults on the senses with a focus on spectacle.

It'd be unfair to say there were no highlights whatsoever, but the success stories were genre hybrids such as Lucy or Edge of Tomorrow. All-out action was reduced to the likes of A Good Day to Die Hard, an incoherent, noisy blemish on a beloved franchise, or Olympus Has Fallen, full of ultra-violent carnage and released the same month as the practically identical White House Down.

An energetic implementation of gun fu

Striking, original and unique, John Wick's standout elements were directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and their energetic implementation of gun fu. John Woo first cultivated the style — a mixture of kung fu and, you guessed it, guns — with 1986's A Better Tomorrow. Before then, Hong Kong cinema saw firearms as less appealing than aesthetically pleasing martial arts, but Woo enticed audiences by combining a sense of grace and acrobatic combat with visually stimulating gunplay.

In creating gun fu, Woo gave birth to the Heroic Bloodshed subgenre. These stories feature characters who value honor and integrity, and follow a strict code of ethics. Often the protagonists will stop at nothing to enact revenge, chasing down those who mistreated them with a barrage of bullets, the resulting bloodshed made more palatable by their morality. John Wick is part of this tradition, but Stahelski and Leitch weren't the first to repurpose gun fu for American audiences. Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, released in 1995, is an early example. Four years later, guns were made graceful in 1999's Reeves-led The Matrix, which used elements of gun fu and sci-fi to create an innovative and industry-shaking success. 

2002's Equilibrium went a step further when introducing "gun kata," a special combat style implementing genuine artistry to avoid a flurry of bullets. Though gun kata didn't quite catch on, Wanted, Kick-Ass and even Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained are examples of gun fu firing its way into Hollywood before Reeves' skilled assassin reached the screen. So how was John Wick so different?

Flowing choreography and charismatic combat

Stahelski and Leitch earned their trade in Hollywood as stuntmen, most notably on the The Matrix, the former as Keanu Reeves' double. This gave the pair a unique vantage point, combined with the desire to make the action a prized asset, demanding the spotlight. For Stahelski, many cameramen saw action sequences as stressful and cumbersome, an exercise in "hiding imperfections." Instead, they invited the cameramen into rehearsals and choreographed each scene meticulously, leaving no room for surprises on the day of filming.

To add even more authenticity, the directing duo were determined to include as much footage of Reeves as possible, resisting the temptation to use highly trained stunt doubles. No spring chicken at the age of 49 when filming began, Reeves performed the vast majority of stunts himself, spending four months of pre-production honing his technique. Training included Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, standing judo, tactical 3-gun and Center Axis Relock (CAR), a shooting system designed for close-quarter combat.

The result is fight choreography that flows freely, as charming as it is brutal and, most flattering, likened to a form of ballet; every movement carefully synchronised, each bullet accounted for and fired with poise. Violence in John Wick isn't only stylized, it's a form of art, an exercise in creativity, channelled through a professional hitman in the midst of his craft.

Mirror mirror on the wall

Stahelski and Leitch's directorial debut proved they understand much more than fight choreography. John Wick's cinematography is breathtaking, befitting the most ardent arthouse production and as stylish as Wick himself. Even the most grotesque acts of aggression are sprinkled in beauty, saturated in neon hues of blues and reds. Criminal underworlds are supposed to be murky, gritty, full of dirt, yet Wick's world is the inside of exclusive clubs, Rome colosseums and mirrored museums. Though every frame dazzles, two examples stand out.

In the first movie, Wick tracks down Iosef (Alfie Allen), the man who stole his car and killred his dog, at the Red Circle nightclub. The vibrant backdrop of bright lights becomes part of the action as Wick stalks, stabs and massacres through a sea of ultraviolet. Even the subtitles are sexy. As impressive as the scene is, in terms of spectacle, Stahelski went even further in Chapter 2. The Hall of Mirrors sequence — an homage to Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon — is a masterclass in filming the unfilmable, as Wick hunts enemies through a confusing landscape of diamond-like reflections.

It's not only the backdrop that impresses, either. John Wick rejected the sharply edited, frantic action commonly used in the genre at the time. Wide shots and long takes capture every punch, kick, and pistol whip. This is action deserving of the spotlight.

What would Wick be without Reeves?

The Kuleshov Effect, named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, is an editing technique that changes the audience's understanding of a character's emotional state. In Kuleshov's example, audiences implied different meanings to an actor's expression dependent on the following shot, whether it be a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, or a woman in a seductive pose. Though initially applied in the early 1900s, this filming technique is relevant to John Wick.

Though some criticize a perceived lack of acting in his work, Reeves is an expert in minimalism. Underacting is a skill in itself, and in doing so, Reeves' portrayals often leave an element of mystery. This is particularly important with John Wick, a character whose mythology is so extravagant. A man whose past is murmured in hushed, fearful voices by ruthless criminals. A man who pulled off an "impossible task" to quit the assassin underworld so he could retire and spend time with his wife. A man who once killed a man (or multiple men) with a pencil. A man seeking revenge for the death of his puppy.

Reeves has presence, but doesn't force Wick to be superhuman. As he dances his way through headshot after headshot, he's stripped of emotion, his flashes of anger saved for a quick, punchy moment of heroism — "I'm thinking I'm back" — with no signs of indulgence during a killing spree. Wick is chillingly efficient and calculating, but thanks to Reeves, he's also authentic, honest, and even relatable. Consequently, audiences want him to get revenge — not to gleefully witness an onscreen massacre, but for Wick to find peace.

Beyond action, into a fascinating world...

John Wick's world-building is unmatched in the genre, an intricate and fascinating network centering around the Continental, a hotel in New York City acting as a safe space for professional hitmen. The hotel's owner, Winston (Ian McShane), is an enigmatic character. He's charming and affable, yet his power is evident. The story never feels the need to answer all questions, making Winston's air of mystery even more potent. He's the face of the underworld, the executioner of a strict code of conduct, with its number one rule being no killing on the hotel's territory.

The characteristics of this universe are as detailed as they are original. Special gold coins are exchanged for all range of services from seemingly legitimate business doubling as black market suppliers: Pawnbrokers where hitmen can store passports, guns and coins; sommeliers who are experts in pistols, not pinot noir; tailors who offer bespoke, bulletproof suits; waste disposal companies who dispose of dead bodies; cartographers providing blueprints or false documentation; special markers signifying a blood oath made between two assassins … 

Aware of the fascinating nature of this world, Chapter 2 expanded on it, introducing the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) as the head of the Soup Kitchen, an intelligence network of assassins who hide in plain sight as homeless in New York. The Bowery King's network stand in rebellion to the High Table, the mysterious organization operating behind the scenes, offering Wick an option to escape their grasp.

Humor and self-awareness

John Wick is aware of its absurdity, and thrives in it. It's the only way to justify a revenge tale sparked by the murder of a puppy. It's the only way to justify 205 murders across two movies. It avoids gratuity by balancing realistic action inside a video game-esque world where no civilians get hurt, and those killed are members of an elite group whose mission almost guarantees death. The environment is unreal and dreamlike — some have theorized John Wick could even be a Matrix training simulation.

True to its genre, John Wick is over the top. Wick's backstory is fit for mythology, and the way support characters respond to him, from policemen knocking at his door to club bouncers moving aside, turns him into a borderline caricature. Without humor, the impact wouldn't be the same — just listen to lines like "I once saw him kill three men in a bar… with a pencil." Even the poster for Chapter 2 paid tribute to Two-Gun Gussie, a 1918 silent comedy starring Harry Lloyd.

It's hard to picture Wick having the same impact if it took itself seriously, a possible reason it excelled while similar films failed to capture audiences' imagination to the same extent. Or perhaps it's the tonal contrast with Reeves's straight-faced seriousness throughout even the most far-fetched moments, maintaining an important thread of believability and preventing the film spilling into parody.

Molding the industry...

Four years on from John Wick's release, the creative team are working on a host of projects that'll continue to imprint their unique style onto the industry. Most obvious is Leitch's Atomic Blonde, a spiritual sibling to Wick, similar in color palette and brutality. Star Charlize Theron — who plays MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton — admitted she was inspired to dip into the Cold War Berlin story because of her admiration of John Wick. Executives at 20th Century Fox were equally impressed, trusting Leitch to apply his directorial eye to Deadpool 2 after Tim Miller's exit. No doubt they saw Wick-esque action as a perfect fit for Ryan Reynolds' foulmouthed, super-popular mutant.

Leitch is also working as a producer with the wider creative team, including writer Derek Kolstad and fellow producer Stahelski, on Nobody. Bob Odenkirk will star in the action thriller — which, judging from Odenkirk's acting portfolio, will presumably channel the same level of wry humor and self-awareness as he plays the role of a white-collar worker caught up in the criminal underworld after defending a woman harassed by thugs.

The takeover doesn't end there. John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk promised his upcoming Robin Hood will upgrade the legendary outlaw for modern audiences by including Wick-inspired combat. "The stuff we're doing with the bow and arrow, it's the same thing that Keanu does with the gun," he told Collider. Finally, the producers of the 1986 reboot of cult classic Highlander clearly have the same idea, asking director Stahelski to apply Wick's style — this time to swordplay.

… Others are influenced, too

In post-Wick Hollywood, revenge is hot property. Puppy-motivated revenge has almost sparked a subgenre of its own, most notably parodied by Keanu, an action comedy about a pair of cops who infiltrate a gang to retrieve their stolen kitten. In 2016's Western thriller In a Valley of Violence, Ethan Hawke played the role of a drifter named Paul, who reprimands a group of criminals for having the audacity to threaten his dog Abbey. 

The same year, Hawke also starred in 24 Hours to Live, about an assassin brought back from the dead, determined to get revenge against the agency he previously worked for. 2017's The Foreigner added itself to the resurgence of Heroic Bloodshed, with Jackie Chan playing a former special forces operative seeking revenge after his daughter is killed in a terrorist attack. Streaming giant Netflix got their own Wick-tinted action in adapting the graphic novel Polar.

Wick's influence isn't consigned to male protagonists, either — female-led revenge-thrillers are also abundant. Jennifer Lawrence channelled Lorraine Broughton in Red Sparrow. Peppermint — referred to as "John Wick with a female protagonist" — will star Jennifer Garner as a heroine avenging the death of her husband and daughter with a violent killing spree. Taraji P. Henson played a hitwoman on a quest for revenge in Proud Mary.

World-building is one of Wick's strong points, with elements seeping into other movies, too. The Hitman's Bodyguard includes a hitman underworld similar to, but nowhere near as compelling as, the Continental. Hotel Artemis, is … well, let's say "heavily inspired" by the same organization. It features Jodie Foster as the Nurse, the manager of the hotel doubling as a safe space for criminals to seek medical treatment.

He's back, for a while longer ...

Wick isn't finished yet. John Wick 3 is set for release in May 2019, picking up with Wick on the run, with a $14 million bounty on his head. True to form, Stahelski won't be following the pre-Wick trend of excess, promising to focus on the High Table, Soup Kitchen, Continental and other background complexities instead of expensive set pieces. "I think it would be a mistake budget wise and creatively to just go big and blow up a freeway. That's not our gig. That's a comic book or a Bond gig," he told Collider. "We want to show you cool and intricate details."

The conveyor belt isn't ending with the third chapter. A Wick spinoff has been rumored, with speculation the story could link with Atomic Blonde. There's also exciting news for the small screen, with confirmation of a Wick TV show, titled The Continental, that delves into the world of the titular hotel and its many, eclectic visitors. The network has promised "thunderous fight sequences and intensely staged shootouts."

There are no signs of the phenomenon slowing down. Wick's stylish action has smashed the proverbial sledgehammer into conventional genre fare, exposing a winning formula. Beyond the dust and cracked cement, the action movie has significantly changed thanks to "Baba Yaga" — and he's only getting started.