On the Changing Cinematic Language of Action in John Wick 3

On Matt Lynch’s brilliant letterboxd account he has stated multiple times that “no one is shooting action like this” in reference to the John Wick films, and he is correct. Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have introduced a new language into action cinema, one that they refer to as “gun-fu”. It’s a new language that you would assume many would attempt to copy, but few have even attempted to do so. It speaks to the level of skill and technical brilliance one has to have in order to establish something that is unique only to its own world. Right now Stahelski and everyone associated with John Wick are reaching greater, newer heights in action cinema that years from now we will pinpoint as special in the same way fans of genre do so for the likes of John Woo and George Miller.

Despite the John Wick series introducing an entirely new cinematic language in the clear, graceful way Keanu Reeves moves through a mountain of enemies in an isolated space it isn’t like we haven’t been building to this moment. Chad Stahelski is a director with a distinctly unique take on action cinema, but much of what makes up “Gun-Fu” is emphasizing building blocks of action cinema past, and the fact that the John Wick movies are in conversation with the full breadth of action cinema makes them utterly delightful for those of us who love genre. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what makes Stahelski and Reeves form so special it is important to first underline what actually is “gun-fu”. To be very blunt, it’s a mixture of musical choreography, judo and gun violence. Stahelski and company are comprehensive in their movement, blocking and setting. Reeves himself has even compared this to dance in interviews. The central figure of the mayhem is Reeves’s Wick and the camera follows his movement. It’s in lock-step with how he processes battle. The dozens of enemies he kills aren’t given weight, because it is intoxicating to watch him clear a room. They do this by never giving them facial features. These are the men and women who have no chance at killing John Wick. The bigger threats are introduced by way of dialogue and larger set-pieces, but Wick has become popular largely due to these instances where Wick empties a room. If you pay close attention to the violence it’s all relatively simple, clean, and effective, much like Wick himself. He never exposes himself in the environment and the most necessary aspect of his own defences happens to be taking an arm or another limb and manipulating their body so they cannot fire a gun. He does this through a series of judo-throws, rolling armbars and leg-takedowns. If his enemies can’t use their hands, they can’t fire a gun, rendering them useless. This is the fundamental truth of John Wick and in cinema this has been around since Akira Kurosawa made Sanshiro Sugata in 1943.

Mixed martial arts has been massively popular in North America going on fifteen years now. With the introduction of UFC to Spike TV in the mid-00s it opened a public audience up to an entirely new world of physical combat and sport. Cinema has only been catching up relatively recently. Gina Carano’s expert work in Stephen Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) was the first shot across the bow of introducing an action cinema obsessed with mma. In a closed-quarters scenario encounter in a hotel room with co-star Michael Fassbinder they ushered a new kind of physicality to action cinema. Made all the more intoxicating due to the gendered nature of the fight. The consistent idea of women in action cinema is to use agility, speed and techniques such as head-scissors takedowns and movement that verges on professional wrestling’s understanding of lucha to keep up with the stronger, more physically domineering men. In Haywire though she stands toe to toe with Fassbinder and uses limb manipulation, positioning and a scientific approach to understanding the human body to gain an advantage over her opponent. None of this is sexualized, and it’s maybe the best action sequence in any movie this decade for everything it would come to represent going forward in the physical combat of pictures in Hollywood. The John Wick films essentially work around the same ideas of understanding the human body, and in John Wick 3 the curtain is finally pulled back. John returns “home”, to the people who taught him, and what are they doing? Amateur wrestling and Judo. It’s a cinema of the human body, and in an age when green-screen stands in for much of the action in Hollywood produces it is overwhelmingly satisfying to watch a film that understands the human body can do things so much better.

Chad Stahelski doesn’t just get his kicks over MMA though, and the other aspect of carnage which inspires his action cinema language comes from first and third person shooter video games. The notion of clearing a room of bad guys is fundamental to making John Wick a satisfying action movie, and that is also what makes the video games that function on the same idea work. He doesn’t use cinematic form to copy the games, but to manipulate their function with that of cinema to create a symbiotic effect. No possible target is ever killed off-screen. We can see them in frame coming and in real time we see John Wick react. Pins to be knocked down, but it’s in that split second of recognition that we see through Wick’s eyes. We can understand his thought process as soon as he moves to take an arm or fire a weapon. Stahelski worked on The Matrix films as a stunt-coordinator and a lot of the CGI in those movies functions similarly to video game action and anime of the period which emphasized the very best aspects of those mediums. He learned well from The Wachowskis to use everything.

John Wick 3 even reaches back to wuxia during the final confrontation of the film. This series of movies is gun and martial arts obsessive, but above all else the human body is the ultimate tool. When confronting two assassins hired to kill Wick he finds himself completely outmatched and outsmarted. He keeps reaching for his gun to put them away, but the gun doesn’t work in this scenario. It’s obvious signalling. When they knock Wick down and reach to kill him they let him live, more interested in proving themselves than spilling blood. They’re honoured to fight with him and Wick understands that in order to compete with them he has to disavow the gun. Instead, he takes off his belt to make up for his slower movements compared to their ability to fight with small knives and great agility. He has to be smart and when he eventually overcomes them he lets them go. Understanding that this was an exhibition. That may seem strange to some audiences who aren’t familiar with martial arts from the east, but for anyone who loves Lau Kar-Leung it makes perfect sense.

The John Wick movies are a total overdose of action cinema unique to the mind of Chad Stahelski. If you follow the insides and outs of the genre it is infinitely rewarding to see where the filmmakers are pulling from with each film. In earlier John Wick pictures they used EDM and pop music structure to introduce battle, and now they’ve fully come into their own as a total representation of everything action can be and stand for. There’s nothing new in the plotting of John Wick 3, as much of it revolves around the same rules and mythos of the high-table and notions of honour and revenge, which is beginning to resemble Yakuza politics more and more. The reason why people come to these movies is the action sequences, and outside of maybe Paul W.S. Anderson there’s no one better in mainstream Hollywood at the moment. I can’t wait to see where they go with the fourth film and beyond. As Matt Lynch said, “No one’s making action movies like this”.