The John Wick franchise has grown from a film that almost went straight to home video to an almost billion-dollar-grossing franchise with two spin-offs in production. Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves transformed not only their careers but also the way audiences look at modern action films. By changing the components of what makes an action film, what an action hero acts like, and most of all, what motivations can be used to set an action hero on their path, Stahelski, Reeves, and screenwriter Derek Kolstad created a new, exciting way to give audiences an action franchise that would bring them back to theaters again and again.
From the initial creation of the character John Wick, they wanted to make a different kind of movie than your formulaic action film. In order to achieve this, there were certain benchmarks of action filmmaking that needed to be revitalized. John Wick, the titular character played by Reeves, barely speaks. The films are full of heavily choreographed long takes and shy away from handheld camerawork has become a staple in modern action films. In most action films, the plot centers around some sort of ‘end of the world’ type of plot like a corporation building a radioactive energy source or a bio-terrorist acquiring nuclear weapons. In the John Wick franchise, the motivation is quite different; it starts out simply as revenge for the death of a puppy, which severs the grief period for Wick dealing with the loss of his wife.
Reeves is the perfect actor to bring the character of John Wick to the screen. He’s able to communicate with his eyes and body language what John is feeling or thinking; without relying on a ton of dialogue, he’s able to deliver the full scope of the story. The first installment allows the character to explore his grief and adjustment to life after the loss of his wife. While we only get a glimpse of John Wick before his quest for revenge begins, you can see a different man, even without many words spoken, because of the way in which Reeves plays him. There’s a pureness, and at times silliness, to the way the character is written that could get lost in translation with another actor taking on the part. Action films in general have a bit of a disbelief from reality needed as the scenarios are not something that occurs every day; Reeves carries the film with this understanding of it being a serious film, yet playful at times. John Wick’s catchphrase being a simple (iconic), “Yeah,” works because there’s a self-awareness with how Reeves delivers the dialogue.
Action films that heavily rely on fight sequences with the big-name actor involved usually rely on close-ups spliced with shots of the fights zoomed out so they can easily switch between doubles and footage of the actor themselves. Reeves and director (former stunt coordinator) Stahelski utilize quite a different technique for fight sequences in the franchise. The fights are often long or one-takes filmed where you can not only see Reeves’s face, but also the entire scene as the John Wick franchise does not utilize a lot of close-ups. The franchise also veers away from the use of handheld camerawork, which in modern action films has been used to put the audience in the fight; while this can work in some films, it can at times be distracting and not allow audiences to visually enjoy the action they sought out.
In the John Wick franchise, the motivation is quite simple (and perhaps silly). John Wick is dealing with the loss of his wife at the beginning of the first installment, and before she passed away from an illness, she had arranged for a puppy to be delivered to John to keep him company once she was gone. A group of Russian men in a gang attempt to purchase John’s car and when he won’t sell it to them, they break into his house that night, kill his puppy, and steal his car. These traumatic events inspire John Wick to seek revenge against the group the men work for and therefore deliver the motivation for the entire franchise. There are no subplots of a bad guy seeking uranium or a worldwide conglomerate seeking out to poison the world; the revenge John Wick seeks is the only motivation behind the plot of each film. While he has different obstacles or enemies arise, it’s all connected to the same motivation throughout the franchise. While this can come across as silly at first, it truly can make the films feel a bit more grounded in reality as it’s an easy-to-understand motivation that isn’t seen replicated in other films or found as a ‘the universe in the palm of your hand’ type of plot.
But killing a puppy was still a daunting task for the crew; how dark did they want the film to be? Editing the film, the directors had to decide whether they would commit to the puppy’s death or try to soften it. “I’m not going to lie to you: The first couple cuts of John Wick, the tone was a little like, ‘Whoa, did we go a little too dark here?’” Stahelski recalls. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we killed a puppy, what the fuck did we do, we killed a fucking puppy, people are going to eat us alive.’ And then we killed poor Alfie Allen! We killed a puppy, we killed a kid, and it’s really John Wick’s fault, we’re fucked. That was pretty much post; I just explained our emotional arc throughout post.” The director attributes the decision to keep the puppy death in the film to Reeves, always John Wick’s number one fan. He states, “Keanu looked right at us and said, ‘You guys wanted to make a hard-core action movie, right? You wanted to do something genre, outside the box, right? So what’s wrong?’ Good advice. So we went back and adjusted our attitude to being unapologetic, and we just went, ‘John Wick kills 80 guys because of a puppy. Fuck you, we’re done.’ And anything that didn’t have to do with that drive or that character beat, we took out of the movie.”
Kolstad’s script drew on his interest in action, revenge, and neo noir films. Originally titled Scorn, the rights were purchased by producer Basil Iwanyk as his first independent film production. The original script had an older version of John Wick; Kolstad was envisioning a Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood type, who is forced back into his former life as a hitman long after his retirement. He struggled to determine the inciting incident that would lead to Wick’s return, ultimately choosing his older dog’s murder over a cliché of killing the character’s wife or family. The original idea was kept in structure, but they changed the older dog to be a puppy as a way to truly gain the audience’s understanding of the motivation. The script was sent out to several directors, but Kolstad said their responses were, “‘I totally want to do this. Maybe John Wick is married, his mother-in-law lives with him, he has four kids, and they kill the entire family?’ And I was like ‘You don’t get it. We’re not doing that’.” Reeves, who was experiencing a career lull, liked the script and recommended experienced stunt and action choreographers, Stahelski and David Leitch direct the action scenes. Stahelski had a history with Reeves; he had worked as a stunt double for Reeves in The Matrix franchise.
Reeves undertook four months of training to prepare to play John Wick. Although he had previous martial arts experience, Stahelski wanted to create a specific style for Wick, having Reeves train in judo, Japanese jujutsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and arnis. In addition to the training, he took tactical gun courses with the Los Angeles SWAT and Navy SEALs in preparation. He also learned stunt driving skills, including drifting a car while aiming a gun, which is expertly shown off throughout the franchise.
Iwanyk admitted he and his executives lacked experience in film financing in various interviews since the success of the franchise. Days before the scheduled first day of filming, he considered cancelling the first film. His lawyer advised that he would be likely sued into bankruptcy by those involved and their guild unions. Iwanyk deferred his own fees to cover costs and lent the costume designer his personal credit card for resources in order to get the production moving. When financing was eventually secured, it was not as much as been originally discussed. Some of the principal cast made major salary concessions, including Reeves putting his own money into the project. Stahelski modified the vision of scenes to keep the budget down. The majority of funding was provided by MJW Films, DefyNite Films, and Eva Longoria, (yes, that Eva Longoria). Stahelski said in the commentary on John Wick that he never met Longoria but thanked her for “writing a check to fund the film.”
One theme that has truly carried throughout each installment in the films is the dedication to filming on location. The central location throughout the franchise is New York City and the crew was dedicated to shooting in the actual city. Although filming there would cost millions of dollars more than substitute locations such as Chicago or Detroit, Iwanyk said that in a neo-noir film, the location is also a character, and, “If I shoot [John Wick] with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, it feels like a big movie.” Feeling the sense of walking down the street in New York in each installment or Osaka/Paris in the fourth installment is a true component of the storytelling in the John Wick franchise and it really pays off as the audience truly feels in the setting of each film. The film always comes across as grounded in reality, from the stunt work to the visual effects; another factor is shooting on location.
The John Wick franchise stands out partly because of its visual flare, from the tinged neon cinematography to the almost religious-like settings (or, at times, truly religious settings). Stahelski has, in many interviews, described the crime film Point Blank (1967) as a significant influence, as well as Le Cercle Rouge, The Killer (1989), and The Return of the Pink Panther, a film in which assassins pursue the central character. Combining these with Spaghetti Westerns, films featuring Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, and storytelling found in various graphic novels, the John Wick franchise truly found its own visual style unique, unlike most action films that came before.
The directors on the first installment focused on practical stunts but used computer-generated imagery when necessary, such as to add gun muzzle flashes and complete a stunt of Wick being hit by a car. Reeves is very involved in the action scenes in films, with percentages being thrown around in every interview. Jonathan Eusebio, a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator for the John Wick franchise said of Reeves that he “does 98% of everything and the other 2% are things that insurance won’t let us do.” Reeves, however, in true Reeves fashion, is much humbler when discussing the action work he does in the films. He has said “If I’m doing it, it’s not a stunt. Stunt men do stunts…I get to do some physical acting. I get involved in some action but they’re not stunts. I flip over guys, I get flipped, I run, I jump, I play.” Part of what sets the franchise apart from other modern action franchises is the use of fight sequences versus films that rely on one or two major stunts. The elongated action sequences in all of the John Wick films stand out as it’s truly about John Wick fighting his opponents versus completing a major stunt marketed to get people in the theater. The emphasis on fight sequences over major stunt performances truly is a call back to 80s action films.
When the first film was released, critics were near unanimous in their praise for Reeves’s performance, describing it as a return to form for the actor, who had been experiencing quite a career lull. His last two films (47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi) had been box office disappointments both domestically and internationally. However, John Wick quickly became a hit. John Wick was not intended to have a sequel, but its success led to immediate development on a follow up. John Wick: Chapter 2 doubled the box office of John Wick and received an overall positive critical and audience response. It was followed by John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, which nearly quadrupled the box office of the first installment and became one of the highest-grossing films of 2019. John Wick: Chapter 4 was released last month and not only received some of the best critical and audience response of the franchise but also made over $245 million worldwide by the time its second weekend wrapped up.
The industry might still look away from originality, but the John Wick franchise is proof that audiences respond to something fresh and new. Even if the franchise comes across as just another ‘action franchise,’ it’s a new concept on what action films can and should be. Allowing action auteurs, such as Reeves and now Stahelski, to create new, thrilling ways to bring action sequences to the screen is what will keep the action genre fresh.
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