John Wick solidified Keanu Reeves as one of many biggest motion stars of all time

Photograph: Lionsgate

With A Historical past Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks crucial motion film of yearly, beginning with the style’s beginning and transferring proper as much as no matter Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

John Wick (2014)

In your entire historical past of American motion cinema, there are very, only a few films that take their battle scenes as severely as John Wick does. A number of the motion set items in John Wick—the house invasion, the one-man nightclub siege—are straight-up masterpieces, and the film by no means lingers lengthy between these exquisitely crafted depictions of mayhem. However my favourite scene within the film isn’t a battle. It’s the half the place Viggo, the film’s lead Russian gangster, has to inform his son simply how badly he’d fucked up. Viggo’s boy, Iosef, has damaged into the house of a “fucking no one.” He’s killed the person’s canine, stolen his automobile, and left him unconscious. Viggo, performed by the late Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, doesn’t thoughts any of this. He simply minds that Iosef did all this to the flawed man.


Fastidiously and patiently, Viggo tells Iosef that he and his associates used to name John Wick, that no one, baba yaga—the bogeyman. After which he continues, “John wasn’t precisely the bogeyman.” Dramatic pause. “He was the one you ship to kill the fucking bogeyman.” A second later, as that sinks in: “I as soon as noticed him kill three males in a bar with a pencil. A fucking. Pencil.”

That scene comes earlier than any of the film’s fights, and it tells us an entire lot of issues we have to know. It tells us that Wick is an absolute avenging angel of demise, in fact, and it offers us context for the life that he left behind when he fell in love and obtained married. However that scene additionally tells us what sort of film we’re watching. It’s a film that takes place in its personal universe, that leaves behind any notion of realism or naturalism. It tells us that we’re watching myths and archetypes, that the film goes to be a type of tone-poem homage to historical past’s nice bleak, existentialist motion films. It tells us that administrators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch know their Melville and their Woo. The primary time I watched John Wick, I spent that total scene cackling with glee. That scene promised quite a bit, and the film paid off on it.


I’ve to think about that the one that greenlit John Wick thought he’d be getting one other Taken clone; 2014 was the period of the Taken clone. Just a few years earlier, Liam Neeson had revitalized his profession by enjoying a leathery, regretful death-dealer in an inexpensive, unpretentious B-movie, and different growing older film stars have been attempting to do the identical with theirs. Denzel Washington made The Equalizer. Sean Penn made The Gunman. John Wick, initially titled Scorn, may’ve turned out to be a type of.

As a substitute, John Wick turned out to be an entire new mildew: a glossy, fashionable, and deeply foolish studio B-movie that takes place in its personal totally realized world. And after years of uneven, illegible Hollywood motion scenes, it revived the visceral great thing about a well-shot, well-choreographed battle, succeeding in making Keanu Reeves seem like a completely unstoppable killing machine. As of late, individuals aren’t making their very own Taken knockoffs anymore. They’re extra prone to make John Wick clones, like Ben Affleck in The Accountant, say, or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. That’s factor. The John Wick clones have been manner higher than the Taken clones.

In some methods, John Wick was a really acquainted film. Over time, we’ve seen numerous quiet, soulful, and well-dressed hitmen pulled again into the killing sport by tragedy, pressured to remove their outdated bosses. We’ve seen numerous damaged loners happening quests of revenge after seeing their households die. We’ve seen badasses so chilly that they take out total armies of nameless cannon-fodder varieties. We’ve seen underworld tales through which the police barely even appear to exist. John Wick is, in numerous methods, a conventional motion film, one which works very a lot inside the guidelines and constructions of the style.

However in different methods, John Wick is an odd assertion of a film—one which takes all these tropes and makes them as bizarre and otherworldly as doable. For one factor, when John Wick goes to conflict with the Russian mob of New York, he’s not avenging any precise individuals. As a substitute, he’s avenging the demise of a canine, an lovable pet gifted to him by his useless spouse. Iosef insists, time and again, that it was only a canine, as if that is going to assist him in any manner. It’s an attractive little subversion of an outdated revenge-movie trope. Individuals hate seeing canine die in films, so we’re spared the same old Demise Want-style scene of rape and homicide. Even the canine dies offscreen. As a substitute, we get to skip straight to the revenge. And the film is aware of it’s absurd for Wick to be killing dozens of individuals to avenge a canine that he’d solely had for, what, a day? Nevertheless it works on a few ranges. At one level, Wick says that the canine represented all of the hope he had left on this planet, telling us that that’s what despatched him off on that killing spree. So it’s an efficient story gadget. Nevertheless it’s additionally a grand cosmic joke. As a result of in spite of everything, it was only a fucking canine.

Taking this straightforward and unreal pretense as its place to begin, the film builds a whole world. It is a universe stuffed with hitmen. There are such a lot of, in reality, that they’ve their very own lodge, a spot the place any precise killing is expressly forbidden. That’s one of many guidelines of this hitman world that everybody understands. One other is that everybody is meant to pay for stuff in gold cash. Even the police appear to know what’s happening. At one level, a cop involves Wick’s door and sees a physique mendacity on the ground behind him. His response: “You, uh, working once more?” Wick: “No, simply sorting some stuff out.” That’s adequate for the cop, who backs proper out. John Wick: Chapter Two, the film’s 2017 sequel, builds on all of this and turns it into one thing much more gloriously alien. Nevertheless it’s all there within the first film—a violent hidden world, proper beneath our noses.

A 12 months earlier than starring in John Wick, Keanu Reeves went to Hong Kong and China to make his directorial debut. Man Of Tai Chi isn’t what you may count on from the second that an growing older film star steps behind the digital camera. As a substitute, it’s an excellent little underground-fighting film, one made with a barely incoherent plot and an excellent respect for battle choreography. The film nearly makes extra sense as a group of battle scenes than as a conventional narrative. It’s principally in Chinese language, however Reeves himself performs the villain, a glowering evil American billionaire who makes individuals battle to the demise. And he made the entire thing as a automobile for Tiger Chen, a Chinese language martial artist who’d been one of many battle choreographers for The Matrix.

Man Of Tai Chi was, for me, the second that Reeves turned an all-time elite motion star. He’d already had a shocking variety of basic motion films on his résumé: Level Break, Velocity, the Matrix films. He’d achieved lots of his personal stunts in Velocity and educated onerous in wire-fu for The Matrix. However I’d at all times considered him as an actor who generally did motion films, not as a straight-up motion star. Man Of Tai Chi revealed Reeves to be one thing else: somebody so in love with the style that he’d make a labor of affection like that. And John Wick is the second he solidified his spot within the historical past of the style. Keanu Reeves is, fairly merely, one of many biggest motion stars of all time. He may be the only biggest, no qualifiers mandatory.


Give it some thought: Reeves was 50 when John Wick got here out, and he nonetheless went out of his method to make the film as onerous and bodily as doable. He recruited his Matrix stunt doubles Stahelski and Leitch to direct the film despite the fact that they’d by no means directed a film earlier than. (Reeves’ devotion to the Matrix stunt staff is, to my thoughts, some of the endearing issues about him.) He threw himself into coaching, studying types of martial arts that he’d by no means tried. And he pulled off these unbelievable battle scenes—scenes that blend gunplay with hand-to-hand grappling in plausible methods, scenes through which he has to tug off these nice stunts with out the advantage of quick-cutting. He even did a good quantity of his stunt-driving. And he put in an affecting, grounded efficiency on high of all of that, bringing this absurdist world to life with the sheer weight of his facial expressions and physique language. And he delivers his finest badass traces with absolute panache and confidence. (Viggo: “They know you’re coming.” Wick: “In fact. Nevertheless it received’t matter.”)

There’s a ruthless effectivity to the best way Reeves strikes within the film. The best way he kills individuals tells extra of a narrative than the precise story does. He’ll punch somebody, then shoot him, then punch him once more. Generally, he’ll take a foul man down in a leglock, holding him motionless whereas he shoots a few different unhealthy guys, after which shoot the unique unhealthy man whereas that man is mendacity helpless on the ground. A scene like that one-man nightclub invasion is put along with absolute precision, ratcheting issues up steadily till it turns into one thing insane and surreal. It’s fantastically lit and shot and edited, like Drive or one thing, however all of that ambiance serves to spotlight the motion. There’s a scene close to the tip the place Viggo, on the best way to his closing showdown with Wick, laughs maniacally. It’s not as a result of he thinks he’s going to win. He is aware of he’s about to die. He’s simply having a lot enjoyable watching Wick work. We, the viewers, is aware of how he feels.


John Wick made an influence. It made cash and earned vital raves, one thing that I don’t suppose anybody anticipated of it. It spawned an entire universe‚ two films, with one other on the best way, and a spin-off TV collection referred to as The Continental reportedly within the works. Considered one of its administrators went off to make Atomic Blonde, an instant-classic motion film in its personal proper if just for that unbelievable single-take apartment-building battle. John Wick spawned imitators. However extra to the purpose, it proved that an American studio B-movie may very well be really nice, that it may compete with something popping out of South Korea or Thailand or Indonesia. It proved that we don’t need to accept bullshit. It raised the stakes. Individuals hold asking if American motion films are again, and I hadn’t actually had a solution. However now, yeah, I’m considering they’re again.

Different notable 2014 motion films: One other Hollywood film will get the runner-up slot right here. Like John Wick, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a hyperviolent story that takes place in an unrecognizably heightened world. And like John Wick, it proved to be an unlikely franchise-starter. Matthew Vaughn’s Mark Millar comedian e book adaptation is by some means even sillier than John Wick, and it most likely depends an excessive amount of on its gimmickry and winking Bond parodies, however its scene of Colin Firth unleashing absolute hell in a Southern church stays an all-time nice action-cinema second.

Even with out John Wick, Hollywood had a fairly good motion film 12 months. With Edge Of Tomorrow, Doug Liman and Tom Cruise made a high-concept alien-invasion film that turned out to be an entire lot of enjoyable. The Equalizer didn’t do itself any favors by casting Denzel Washington as a cold-blooded killer of Russian gangsters in the identical 12 months as John Wick, but it surely turned out to be an especially watchable film anyway. Non-Cease, with its sense of paranoia and nice supporting characters and really absurd ending, may be my favourite of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken films. Sabotage, a dirty corrupt-cop film full of fine actors slumming and nasty double-crosses, is certainly my favourite of the post-political-career Schwarzenegger films.


The 12 months gave us a few good straight-to-DVD films, with Michael Jai White going to Brazil to get revenge towards the Yakuza in Falcon Rising and Gina Carano on a quest to get her husband again from Caribbean criminals in In The Blood. Dolph Lundgren starred alongside White and the nice Thai star Tony Jaa within the organ-thief film Pores and skin Commerce. And even the pointless remakes turned out to be higher than they needed to be. Brick Mansions, an English-language remake of the nice French parkour film District B13, had little or no of the unique’s anarchic spirit, but it surely gave us an opportunity to look at the late Paul Walker having fun with himself whereas leaping over issues, in order that was good. And whereas the very thought of a PG-13 RoboCop is whole fucking heresy, Elite Squad director Jose Padilha a minimum of tried to interact with the unique film’s political undercurrents and to craft a few memorable motion scenes. Expendables three sucked, however I a minimum of loved Wesley Snipes making an attempt to show “ching-a-lang, ching-a-lang” right into a catchphrase.

However aside from John Wick, my favourite motion film of 2014 was one other unusual temper piece about an unstoppable killer. Adam Wingard’s The Visitor drew on The Terminator and Halloween in equal measures, telling an eerie story a few mysterious super-soldier letting himself free into the world and inflicting himself on the household of a fallen comrade. Within the title position, the previous Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens is each charming and chillingly efficient, and the film itself is a completely superb piece of nastiness. I can’t keep in mind the final time I needed a sequel as badly as I did after that.

Out in the remainder of the world, administrators from outdoors the Hollywood system saved pushing the style ahead. In Indonesia, Gareth Evans made one thing really epic with The Raid 2. Discarding the elegant simplicity of the primary film, Evans as a substitute informed a sprawling and generally complicated story about Indonesian and Japanese crime households at conflict with one another in Jakarta, with the hapless killing-machine cop Rama trapped as an undercover between them. The film’s story misplaced me a bit, however its motion scenes are simply breathtaking, and some of its supporting characters immediately entered the all-time pantheon.


In Chile, in the meantime, star Marko Zaror and director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza made The Redeemer right into a gleefully violent story a few hitman on a quest of atonement. The film’s value watching only for one in all its minor villains, a clueless American drug lord who actually desires a nickname as cool as those that the Chileans have. And in Thailand, RZA confirmed up because the villain in The Protector 2, proving that he’s courageous sufficient to let Tony Jaa kick him. The film itself is manner too CGI-heavy and nowhere close to nearly as good as the unique, however you recognize you need to watch the RZA as an elephant-thieving worldwide gangster who fights Tony Jaa.

South Korea gave us Kundo: The Age Of Rampant, a viscerally satisfying historic epic a few crew of bandit revolutionaries and A Arduous Day, a quickly escalating thriller a few detective doing his finest to cowl up a hit-and-run killing. And with No Tears For The Lifeless, The Man From Nowhere director Lee Jeong-beom returned with a predictably grisly story a few hitman unintentionally killing a bit child after which falling in love with the child’s mother. Even should you love South Korean motion cinema’s mixture of melodrama and absurd violence, that one may be a bit a lot for you. In Hong Kong, Donnie Yen starred in Kung-Fu Killer, a film a few serial killer who solely targets kung-fu masters. It’s precisely as enjoyable because it sounds. And outdated grasp Sammo Hung starred in As soon as Upon A Time In Shanghai, a remake of the 1972 Shaw Brothers basic Boxer From Shantung.

Additionally, whereas I have a tendency to think about superhero films and motion films as two separate, parallel genres, I’ve to take a second for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the closest factor to a straight-up motion film that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has but given us. The film takes its fights severely, casting Frank Grillo as Crossbones and MMA legend Georges St-Pierre as Batroc. Its elevator battle belongs on the checklist of all-time nice film elevator fights, and it’s not straightforward to get on that checklist.

Subsequent time: Mad Max: Fury Highway rides everlasting, shiny and chrome.

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