In his 1999 World War II masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg reinvented cinematic action with an incredible opening sequence of the Allied forces storming the beaches at Normandy. As the camera follows the soldiers, many of whom are doomed before disembarking their vessels, Spielberg takes the audience right into the action as the bullets zip by and the unsteadiness of the camera gives us this sense that we were there amidst the horrific violence of that day. Of course, Spielberg probably didn’t realize just how much this sequence would change modern filmmaking, especially within the action genre. Soon almost all action films featured cameras shaking wildly, shots seamed together with a frenzy of edits in a matter of seconds, and while sometime it might feel like you’re in the action it was all just the illusion of motion, depriving a visual medium of visual comprehension in favor of sensory overload.
In the past decade, though, the tide has finally started to turn. Gareth Evans fired the first salvo with his modern action classic The Raid in 2011 and its sequel in 2014. The year of The Raid 2 also saw the unveiling of an action flick that would further reclaim the genre from visual chaos with John Wick. The first film was a modestly budgeted action film directed by two stuntmen making their directorial debuts in Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. The duo didn’t stay together. Leitch went on to direct Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and this year’s Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw as Stahelski stayed with his star Keanu Reeves and his new action icon John Wick, recently delivering their third film in the epic action franchise with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
The relationship between Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski was born on the sci-fi action classic The Matrix where the future action director was the stunt double for the often doubted blockbuster star. What Reeves and Stahelski have done is reclaim action movies as a visual medium. Using minimal CGI enhancements, the John Wick films are a series where you can be wowed by the best stunt performers in the world as they perform incredible stunts and not lose any of the artistry and physicality in a barrage of edits comprised solely of sound and fury. You’re witness the pinnacle of stunt performance and stunt choreography in a bloodbath ballet that is never overwhelmingly burdened by its own mythology thanks to the show-not-tell philosophy behind these movies and the concise writing of Wick’s creator Derek Kolstad.
The third film takes us a little deeper into the world of John Wick and his origins as the world’s most lethal man. At a Russian ballet, Wick seeks refuge from the army of killers for hire hot on his trail from The Director (Anjelica Huston). The complicated nature of their past is only hinted at as concrete details of their relationship remain vague. However, in taking us into this corner of Wick’s world as reflects the reality that those working on the film are putting themselves through for our entertainment – it’s an underworld of intense physical training, sometime resulting in exhaustion and extreme physical pain as evidenced by the short glimpse of a young ballerina removing a toenail from her battered feet. The glorious madness of John Wick and the incredible fights on display don’t happen overnight. They’re the product of a lifetime of dedication to a craft, years of training, and months of planning and choreography.
Each installment of the John Wick series pulls back the curtain on this underworld of assassins, but never burdening the audience with endlessly complicated expository dialogue. We only learn new wrinkles to the rules when the characters in the films break them. It keeps the plotting mainstreamed and allows the film to revel in their action mastery to maximum effect. But the worldbuilding of John Wick also has another feature, one that might work out to be the film’s greatest asset considering the plague of gun violence that affects America on practically daily basis – it’s a world populated solely by assassins and its commitment to shunning realism is why these films don’t make us cringe at the horrors of violence. It’s pure escapism where the morality of those that fall at John Wick’s incredibly lethal hands were asking it for it; simply, it’s kill or be killed in the underground world of The Continental. In an era where I find myself more questioning on screen violence and what it represents – its power dynamics, etc. – I can still find gleeful joy in John Wick laying waste to anonymous baddies because they’re also assassins residing in an underworld that doesn’t resembles everyday life.
Another thing that the brain trust behind John Wick have done in revitalizing action cinema is paying their respects to their varied influences, and this is especially apparent in Chapter 3. Wick races through the streets on a motorcycle pursued by sword-wielding ninjas also on motorcycles. It’s a crazed sequence but it’s also a nod to the 2017 Korean film The Villainess from director Byung-gil Jung. Also appearing in Chapter 3 are the Indonesian duo of Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from Gareth Evans’ aforementioned Raid movies. The two incredible action stars face off with Reeve’s Wick in an incredible sequence at the finale, one that leaves just these two characters alive because Reeves knew that he couldn’t beat them. It’s just another example how these films are crafted with genuine love for the genre, pulling in nods and cast members from international films that have gone mostly overlook in the United States.
It’s not a coincidence that each John Wick film has out-grossed the previous film in the series and by some serious money. As of this writing, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the eight highest grossing film of the year, beating derivative remakes, sequels, and would-be franchise starters by a considerable margin. But the increasing success of the John Wick series isn’t a fluke. This is the series that saved action cinema from its own worst tendencies, and word of mouth and home video have expanded the audience for each installment. Keanu Reeves is in the midst of a career renaissance for the umpteenth time, as he once again shows himself a brilliant performer who understands his own limitations and takes risks with the right emerging talent time and time again. Reeves isn’t a showy performer who loses himself in method techniques, instead he’s a dedicated craftsman who knows what is required to deliver quality. Another dedicated craftsman is Chad Stahelski, a stunt performer who is now the premiere action director working today. Stahelski isn’t interested in gimmickry. He clearly understands that film is a visual medium and when the camera is shaking like a maraca that the majesty of the many artforms that comprise a film like John Wick are lost. John Wick: Chapter 4 is slated for 2021 because Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski have, once again, rejuvenated the action genre with their singular series that somehow is able to masterfully capture the genre’s highs and avoid all of its lows. John Wick can’t save himself from the vacuum of violence that enraptures his life, but Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski have saved action fans from the mediocrity of those sacrificing visual storytelling in the name of verisimilitude.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Now on Blu-ray, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum continues the trend of Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski saving the action genre from the chaos that dominated the genre throughout the 2000s.