Posted on Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 by Jacob Hall
John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 aren’t just good action movies – they’re perfect action movies. And they’re more than that – they’re great movies, filled with character and humor and detail that rewards careful consideration and thought. They also feature Keanu Reeves shooting so many people in the face, but that’s just the appetizer. Come for the violence (and there’s plenty of that), but linger for two of the most magical and beautifully realized genre movies of all time.
So let’s take a deep dive into these movies and dissect them. Let’s figure out what makes these movies so good and how they utilize Reeves so well, and explore their debt to everything from silent comedies to ancient mythology. Because the John Wick movies aren’t just a ton of fun – they’re art.
Spoilers for both movies lie ahead.
The Very Specific Skill Set of Keanu Reeves
Let’s talk about the Kuleshov effect. Named for Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, this film editing technique was developed in in the early 20th century and explored how audiences would associate the same image with different emotions through the power of montage. Kuleshov cut between the same expressionless image of an actor and a series of images, including food and a beautiful woman. Audiences formed connections that didn’t exist in the performance and only in the edit – the man was hungry; the man was lustful. The performance did not change, but the association of other imagery implied that it did.
And this is why the natural blankness of Keanu Reeves is a gift to filmmakers who know how to utilize it. In the wrong hands, Reeves can appear wooden and stilted, an actor who can’t quite wrap his mouth around certain dialogue and his mind around certain characters. He doesn’t have an especially wide range. But what is here is a very specific set of skills, a mesmerizing deadpan, that sings when put in conjunction with the right associative material. The same zen-like blankness that allows Reeves to play a bumbling stoner also allows him to play a science fiction warrior or a hitman powered by pure vengeance. It’s all about teaming Reeves with a storyteller who understands that this is a leading man who works best as a cog in a larger machine, a tool rather than an engine. He’s the ultimate collaborator, a role made more powerful by his commitment to research and preparation.
Reeves’ natural stillness is not something every actor can pick up – there’s a fine art to doing very little. The John Wick movies have an entirely appropriate love for early silent comedies, and Reeves demands comparison with Buster Keaton, who built an entire career on maintaining a rigid composure and an expressionless face in the midst of absurd and (literally) dangerous situations. Although John Wick is a more emotional guy than Keaton’s characters, his outbursts of rage and anger only come at a breaking point. For the bulk of both movies, Reeves is stone-faced, the source of an unending and intentional punchline. Yes, this all very absurd. Yes, this is all very goofy. Yes, this action is so over-the-top. But look at the face of the leading man! He’s taking it so seriously. Maybe we should, too?
In director Chad Stalelski, Reeves has found a storyteller who knows how to use him best. In John Wick, he has found a character (and world) that feels like it was custom built for his specific set of skills.
Putting It All in Camera
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a strange image that we quickly forget about because the camera tilts down and drops us straight into a car chase. Footage of an old silent movie is projected on the wall of a Manhattan skyscraper. Who is watching it? Who is projecting it? Why are we seeing this? These questions are unimportant. It serves its purpose: it pays tribute to the performers to which the John Wick series pays tribute and it lets you know that yes, the movie is very much in on the joke.
One of the posters for John Wick: Chapter 2 (partially seen at the top of this article) features Reeves staring forward, poker face at the ready, with countless guns aimed straight at his noggin. The internet wryly pointed out that this looked an awful lot like imagery from Two-Gun Gussie, a 1918 silent comedy short starring the legendary Harold Lloyd. What those who haven’t given John Wick the time of day didn’t realize is that this was very intentional. Lloyd, like Buster Keaton and other early film comedians, is silent cinema’s equivalent of an action star. Without the use of dialogue, their jokes had to be purely visual and the most memorable of them involve genuine risk to all involved. The very nature of early film technology, including generally static cameras and the lack of sophisticated visual effects, meant that you just couldn’t fake certain things. Either you did it on camera, either you risked your life for the gag, or it didn’t happen.
The John Wick movies arrive a century after the heyday of the silent comedians, but they’re very much a throwback to the days where filmmakers had no choice but to put it all in camera. There are modern tricks in the John Wick movies and digital technology helps ensure the safety of performers and a smoother production process, but the spirit is very much alive in how Stahelski shoots his action and how his stunt team stages it. Shots are long and avoid extreme close-ups. The faces of performers, including Reeves, are kept in frame as much as possible to make sure we know they’re actually participating in the action. When someone takes a fall or when a car slams into them, the John Wick movies are making a promise: they’re not faking this and they’re not editing around people who don’t know how to fight. These are movies that understand the visceral, giddy thrill of watching someone survive a perilous and impossible situation, especially when that perilous and impossible situation feels real.
That’s not to say John Wick and its sequel are realistic films. They’re patently and knowingly ridiculous, much like how Buster Keaton knew that it was patently and knowingly ridiculous for his character to survive the front of a house around him in Steamboat Bill Jr. But to pull off that famous stunt, Keaton and his team had to actually execute it, to sell something so silly as something that could actually happen…because they made it actually happen.
Similarly, the John Wick movies pad their inherent outrageousness with just enough realism to sell it. Every bullet is accounted for, with the action choreography accounting for him reloading his weapons after the proper number of shots are fired. There is no John Woo-esque cheating when it comes to the number of rounds in every magazine. Every physical encounter is shot wide enough to showcase the specific details of the struggle, revealing how Wick fights his way out of any given situation with enough real-world accuracy to suggest that maybe it’s possible for him to survive his ordeal. And it certainly helps that Reeves does the bulk of his own stunts, having learned how to shoot and fight over the course of a grueling training regimen.
By putting it all in camera and adding that tinge of realism, the John Wick movies sell their ridiculousness in a way that most action movies simply cannot. And that tinge of realism is, like the leading man itself, a finely tuned deadpan that lets you know it’s okay to laugh.