When John Wick came out back in 2014, I was pretty uninterested. Keanu Reeves had starred in some great movies over the years, but he hadn’t done anything that would warrant my attention in some time, and the dark tones and action sequences I saw in the trailer felt like just another disposable action movie we’d all forget about until it showed up on Netflix a few months later.
But as is so often the case, I was wrong. The movie successfully accomplished what so many others have attempted to in recent years; it established an entire universe that was as logical as it was fantastic, showing us that Keanu Reeves and a hand gun could somehow make for a better super hero franchise than everything the DC cinematic universe had to offer.
The action sequences were quick-paced and brutal without relying on the Jason Bourne/Transformers film methodology of mixing shaky shots with close angles that relay emotion at the expense of the ability to really follow the scene. The dark tone took itself seriously without rubbing your face in it like Zack Snyder’s repeated attempts at becoming the new Michael Bay. And best of all, it gave us a protagonist we can really root for. John Wick’s deadly calm, pleasant demeanor, and nonchalant way of walking away from scrapes with death gave us a look at the future of action movies: as troubled heroes who are capable of violence mirror our own perceptions of the modern world, and of America’s place within it.
It was because of how genuinely good John Wick was that I was afraid of the sequel. Nothing can ruin a good thing faster than repackaging it for mass marketability, and I feared our second outing with Wick could go the way of the Die Hard franchise – losing its grounding in favor of bigger stunts and wider scope.
Thankfully, John Wick 2 came through for me. The action sequences are just as fast paced and brutal, and while the scope of the universe Wick exists in certainly did grow, it did so in an organic way that didn’t give you the sense that they chose shooting locations before plot points. John Wick 2 successfully carried the torch lit in 2014, and set up a cinematic universe ripe for spin offs and sequels. The underground world of assassins proved to be larger than we knew in the first movie without robbing us of the intimacy that made the first John Wick such an emotional ride.
When taking screen writing classes, the first thing you’ll learn is that major movies follow a tried and true equation in their action sequences and plot progression. Often, movies will have action sequences planned before a script is in place, as studios know they want to see Optimus Prime fight the Predator on top of Eiffel Tower for marketing purposes, then they bring writers in to fill in the blanks between special effects sequences. Other times, as was the case in one of the latest Mission Impossible movies, the director will realize he’s missed an important action sequence time stamp, and they’ll go back and add a reason for Tom Cruise to have to Spider-Man his way down a skyscraper to adhere to these tent pole requirements. When movies fail to do so, they start to feel long, or slow, or poorly paced because we’ve been trained to expect regular intervals of action and emotion by the industry. When movies follow the prescription with too heavy a hand, however, you begin to lose sight of the plot. An excellent action movie hits all the important action and conversational notes without giving you reason to notice time stamps, and that’s exactly what John Wick 2 provided.
With this second film under his belt and a successful opening weekend, I’m going to make a bold prediction – which may be ill-advised as I’ve already pointed out how often I’m wrong. John Wick represents something the American movie industry has been pining for since the eighties, something guys like me have been lusting after even more since Daniel Craig’s reboot of the famous spy series… John Wick is the American James Bond.
Now, that isn’t to say that the new movie shifted toward the traditional jet setting James Bond action thriller – no, it’s still every bit the crazy violent revenge movie the first one was – but it’s the movie’s unapologetic ability to be itself that makes it Bond-like in my eyes. England sees itself as a tea sipping aristocrat that can woo any woman and conceal a Walther PPK in its finely cut suit, and their premier action franchise of the past fifty years represents that perfectly. America tried to do the same with Jason Bourne, removing the aristocrat and injecting some good old American brute force, but the movies ultimately missed the mark, proving to be fun to watch, but failing to capture that intangible element that can really make an audience identify with a hero. Jack Ryan, a CIA everyman that somehow is always reluctant to save the day despite a half-dozen movies featuring him doing so, also hoped to claim the mantle of American Bond, but again, something was missing.
I realize now that these movies, while favorites of mine, failed to create characters we can’t help but keep coming back for because they were trying to show how Americans would fair in Bond’s world. We wanted our own well-dressed hero, one that replaced Bond’s arrogance with American strength or unwitting heroism – Wick doesn’t care what world James Bond is in. He’s too busy killing everyone in his own, and that’s why it’s so good.
America has become angsty and frustrated. Where we were once certain that we were the world’s good guys, it has become impossible to see ourselves as anything other than another flawed world power as the availability of information and the circus of politics paced one another to feverish highs over the past two decades, and now, like Wick, we find ourselves less motivated by the profits of the eighties or the optimism of the nineties. Decades of fighting have left us tired, and wishing we could retire to a quiet home that isn’t constantly interrupted by news updates about bombings here, shootings there, or missile strikes inadvertently killing civilians.
But despite wishing for peace and quiet, Wick, like America, keeps finding himself back in the middle of the fight, reluctantly succeeding with his superior will, firepower, and skill set – all the while pining for a world that doesn’t need him.
If England is a well-dressed boarding school graduate with a compact Walther PPK and a Martini, America is a bearded man in a black suit, carrying a modified Glock 34, drinking bourbon, and walking his pit bull.
And I’m pretty damn okay with that.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment