The Brutal Thrill of John Wick

The teahouse shootout in Hard Boiled ruined me. Good guys, bad guys, guns, an unholy number of bullets, doves— and you don’t get any cooler than Chow Yun-fat duel-wielding handguns while sliding down the stairs. The shootout erupts in a teahouse of all places, the serenity of sipping tea interrupted by all-out violence where bad guys mow down innocent civilians, giving the good guys a free hunting license to unload carnage. The sheer overkill of Hard Boiled’s opening scene is something seldom achieved these days, which is what makes the increasingly over-the-top set pieces of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum such a welcome sight to see.

This goes for all of the John Wick films, really, boasting a combined kill count that ought to make Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis blush—and would make Chow Yun-fat’s Inspector Tequila snap his toothpick. Parabellum is refreshingly modern while simultaneously (and deliciously) a throwback to hardcore 90s action films of thrilling hand-to-hand combat and ridiculous shootouts. The Matrix represents the peak of that last great chapter of action movies, so it feels right and due proper that Keanu Reeves usher in this renaissance.

Parabellum’s knife fight is my favorite fight scene of the series. Early on, we see John Wick kill a man with a book, so an arsenal of knives seems like easy pickings. He may be wearing an armor-coated suit, but that has never made him invincible. He still has to dodge strikes and evade knives just to stay a half-step ahead of all of New York’s assassins. We’re right there with him in every searing slash and takedown. John Wick practically turns one henchman into a knife holder. Ridiculous? Absolutely. Unnecessary? Now you wait just a minute.

I’m aware that entertainment is subjective. You find entertaining whatever it is you find entertaining. I can’t possibly tell you why Parabellum is thrilling; I can only tell you why I find it thrilling. For my money, it’s Keanu Reeves’ dedication to performing the film’s stunts (the dude’s 55!) that makes the rest of Hollywood look so lame and generic by comparison. Yes, those aren’t actual knives and most of the blood spatter is CG. But that’s not the point. Even the modern action films I love contain multitudes of VFX. The point is that there’s a physical reference to chew on as worthy spectacle.

The knives might be CG, but that’s still Keanu Reeves performing the action. In one shot, Keanu does 20 moves without a camera cut. That surrealism is visceral; we know this is a movie, but we also know that that’s Keanu Reeves falling, hitting, and getting hit. It’s a performance – a choreographed piece rehearsed a thousand times, but it feels real and immediate.

Take Reeves’ clash with The Raid superstars Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian. If you’ve seen a clip from The Raid duology, then you know there’s no fucking way a guy like Reeves can stand a reasonable chance against them in a straight up fist-fight. And that’s exactly how Parabellum sells the scene. Reeves falls more times in Parabellum than any film he’s done prior and it’s played to the effect of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. (John Wick in general goes through a WORLD of hurt in Chapter 3.) To get out on top, Wick uses his size and a bit of creativity with a belt to disarm his opponents. Compare this to any fight scene in the Fast & Furious movies where the only solution to beating your opponent is putting on a meaner face and hitting harder without so much as bearing a scratch.

This fractures our typical action viewing experience where guys like Vin Diesel or Mark Wahlberg perform a move in a front-facing shot, get hit or fall in a rear-facing shot conveyed through an insert edit with a stunt double, cut back to front Vin Diesel getting up to “sell” that it was him. (Schwarzenegger’s films even in his peak were guilty of lazy stunt double inserts.) Parabellum’s commitment to performing action as “real” as possible is why the film’s stunts are so efficiently felt on top of them being impeccably realized.

I grew up watching Jackie Chan films; he was my gateway into action cinema. If Jackie ruined me for hand-to-hand combat, then Hard Boiled director John Woo ruined me for epic shootouts. Woo has a take-your-pick catalogue of career-defining action scenes, from the slow-motion gunfighting finale of The Killer, to Woo’s further stylized Hollywood fare in Hard Target and Face/Off. But Hard Boiled is his pièce de résistance, setting the standard and template for the “over-the-top action set piece” where you can essentially turn your brain off but not without sacrificing the sensation.

About 45-minutes into Hard Boiled, Inspector Tequila infiltrates a warehouse full of goons. He’s a one-man army, an idea hardened by the likes of 80s Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but virtually outdone by Mr. Chow Yun-fat. This has nothing to do with the weapons in his arsenal. (Except for his bomb-ass shotgun, maybe.) Everyone else has shitty aim, while Tequila is right on target with explosive barrels and characters’ center of gravity that’s borderline like a video game. Of course, I’m not complaining about the logistics—because if any one of the bad guys gets Tequila then the movie’s over. That’s the turn your brain off portion. What makes the action exciting is how John Woo paints the mayhem.

They don’t call John Woo the godfather of slow-motion for nothing. It’s when he chooses to use it that makes the technique so effective. Characters pop out of surprise corners a la Westerns, narrowly getting Tequila and closer each time. A lot of it looks like sheer luck, which is its own superpower. Rather, it’s cinema. Characters’ proximity to death, how relative they are to the verge of oblivion, I’d argue, is the appeal of action cinema. (Jackie Chan’s own proximity is what made his stunts such a pulverizing experience to behold, something that late era Tom Cruise has mined to great effect in the Mission: Impossible films.)

It’s a relationship the average moviegoer doesn’t have and it’s why we seek that thrill in movies. (How often do we hang off a helicopter, jump off a building, or are involved in a slow-mo shootout?) Death is what we’re here for and it’s why we can’t look away when John Wick goes on a shoot ‘em up rampage. Yes, he kills people, A LOT of people. But he, too, nearly gets killed in the process. The body count comes at the cost of his own well-being. That’s what made Inspector Tequila human just as it makes John Wick human— if not their god-like aim.

“Give a guy a gun, he’s Superman,” Tequila’s superior tells him. “Give him two and he’s God.” The same could be said of John Wick. His is a legend literally written in lead. A one-man army, a startlingly efficient killing machine. The Baba Yaga. That his kills are brutal too is the cherry on top. He shoots guys in the head twice, unloads entire clips long after enemies have fallen; punctures gunshot wounds with a shotgun barrel then finishes the job point blank. Parabellum’s Continental shootout is a blazing ode to ‘90s John Woo gunplay, the tranquility of the Continental’s suave lobby layout interrupted by armor-piercing carnage, with a color scheme that pays tribute to another classic action set piece. This, made all the more impressive for zero use of slow-mo this time around.

Pair the shootout in Casablanca next to Hard Boiled’s hospital finale and you can feel the similarities. The camera tracking in a simple but slick profile as Inspector Tequila and Alan move up and down a shooting gallery of baddies. John Wick series director Chad Stahelski uses a similar technique as Wick and Sofia duck, roll, and shoot their way out of a fortress. (With a hard-edged Halle Berry to boot.) There’s nothing particularly stylized about the camerawork; no rapid-fire editing to juice up the intensity, no wobble of the camera to sell that it’s happening in real-time. The setup and staging does all of that already, and Parabellum is a better movie for focusing on what happens in camera rather than doing things to the camera.

Stahelski and crew achieve something quietly bold compared to other films that over-rely on editing and CGI – Parabellum lets the actors perform the action in a wide shot. The slaughter, as a result, is more than convincing; it’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get a high off the sheer overkill on display.

When John Wick rebuilds a revolver during the opening skirmish, I can think of no better standing scene for star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski. With the John Wick films, they are essentially use the same parts and the same visual vocabulary established throughout all of action cinema and recontextualizing them to create a newer thrill each time. John Wick doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel because the wheel has already been well established. As Baba Yaga himself has proven, there are plenty of ways you can kill someone using the same progression of weapons– and a whole lot of ways to entertain the hell out of us too.

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