John Wick and the Violent Beauty of Action Choreography

Back in August I bemoaned the state of the American action scene. I wrote that the action scenes found in modern American blockbusters lacked inventiveness, too often relying on shaky-cam and whizbang editing over skilful camera movement and choreography. John Wick refutes everything I wrote in that essay. It has the best action scenes in an American film in years, possibly since a certain sci-fi film also starring Keanu Reeves. If other American action films can emulate John Wick, there may yet be hope for the American action scene.

John Wick follows the titular ex-hitman (Keanu Reeves) as he rains down vengeance on Russian mobsters after a group of them steal his car and kill his beloved beagle puppy. It’s a conventional revenge narrative executed in the most thrilling ways imaginable. It’s also a film that embraces clear action choreography and practical stunt work. This allows the action scenes to have a real-world weight to them. This makes sense as John Wick’s first-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are former stuntmen, having worked on The Hunger Games films and as stunt doubles for Reeves in The Matrix sequels. They understand that the impact of an action scene lies heavily on the weight of the action unfolding on screen. Every punch, every gunshot, every flip or roll or step has to have momentum and weight behind it. The viewer needs to see that when John Wick shoots his gun, it has an impact on the henchman he’s blasting away. The conventional Hollywood method of fast cuts and a multitude of close-ups does not accomplish this.

Although the prevailing mode of editing and coverage supposedly simulates what it must be like for a person to be involved in the midst of a chaotic fight, it lacks grace and clarity. We don’t know what hand or what gun belongs to what character, so there is no consequence to the action on screen. There is just indistinguishable noise and violence. The viewer cannot process the scene. We don’t see the cause and effect of the action, and action is all about cause and effect. Wider shots and longer takes instead allow the viewer to see the performers interacting within a recognizable space and time period. Action scenes in film are like dances and stunt performers are the dancers. Like the best dance scenes, the best action scenes pull the camera back and focus on the movements of the characters, enhancing the onscreen action through tracking shots and clearly motivated cuts.

In John Wick, the camera orients the action. It tells us where to focus when, and what to be aware of so the next action beat has full impact. When John Wick is moving around a kitchen island in the left of the frame and we’re aware of a villain sneaking up on him from the back of the kitchen on the right, we know that the two will clash and we anticipate them doing so. Then, when Wick and the henchman meet and fight, with John Wick throwing the man onto the island and breaking his neck with a downward elbow smash, we get the added visceral thrill of enjoying the choreography and the violence of the action, while also understanding where it came from and where it’s going. This mode of filmmaking allows us to anticipate the action, thus building suspense, while also allowing us to comprehend the action and enjoy the payoff when the two characters inevitably meet and fight. This comprehensible action choreography is not rocket science. Orient the viewer to the geography of the space. Introduce the physical conflict between multiple characters. Build suspense. Have the characters meet and fight. Resolve the fight. In other words, show how action A connects to action B.

The filmmakers of John Wick also understand that shaky-cam action is subjective in nature, and that to truly appreciate action spectacle (and not simply feel the excitement of action) requires the camera to create more of an objective spectator. The film’s action scenes are constructed with the viewer in mind, not just the character. A shaky-cam action scene is only interested in how the character experiences the action, and in conveying that experience to the viewer. The viewer’s perspective of the action is inconsequential and virtually eliminated because it has been shrunk down to the perspective of the character. There’s no true appreciation of the moment because we only get one hurried side of it. This can be exhilarating when done properly, but it’s being abused by filmmakers without clear artistic motivation. It makes an action scene all about the emotion of the moment, instead of the physical action of it, when an action scene can incorporate both elements.

John Wick shows that if the choreography of an action scene is motivated and elaborately thought-out, and if the point-of-view is guided by the momentum of the choreography, not a character’s subjective perspective, the action is enhanced. There can still be a ferocity to the combat in this mode of action filmmaking. Anyone who sees Keanu Reeves shoot dozens of men in the face at point-blank range in John Wick can attest to this. But there’s also a beauty to this type of action because the movement of bodies on screen becomes a dance of physical prowess. We’re even more invested in the action and can enjoy the scenes because we want to see John Wick defeat his enemies and get revenge for the death of his puppy, but we can also appreciate the vitality of the movements on display. Action scenes can be things of beauty, but only if the viewer is allowed to appreciate the totality of the action and not just the intensity of it.

One shot in an early action scene in John Wick best demonstrates this notion that an action scene can benefit from being oriented around the viewer’s perspective, not the character’s. After a series of Russian henchmen have broken into John Wick’s house to assassinate him, Wick has met the henchmen on his stairs between his kitchen and living room. He works his way into the kitchen, killing the men who come his way, dodging their bullets and expertly moving his way from one villain to another. At the end of his kitchen there’s a wall divider and a henchman is hiding behind it, waiting for John Wick to approach. The camera holds back in a wide shot as the henchman shoots through the wall divider, aiming for Wick’s head, but Wick is aware of the henchman and he kneels down, allowing the bullets to pass overtop. Simultaneously, he aims diagonally up and shoots the henchman multiple times through the wall divider.

The thrill of this moment would not work if the camera were placed closer to John Wick or if the action of killing the henchman were broken up into multiple shots. It is precisely because the camera holds back, not cutting, and we are aware of multiple planes of action going on in a single frame, that this shot is so thrilling. It demonstrates John Wick’s badassery as he predicts the henchman’s moves and handily dispatches him. It’s also a beautiful frame. There are multiple levels of action, a diagonal momentum, a wide depth of field with Wick’s living room visible in the background, and dark blue lighting that all add to its striking effect.

Moments like this make John Wick such a thrilling action film. The action choreography is meticulous and the camerawork takes full advantage of it at every turn. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a knack for visual wit in addition to serious action chops. Keanu Reeves again shows that he’s one of the most impressive physical performers out there. I’m not sure whether John Wick marks the return to interesting action choreography in American cinema or whether it’s an aberration, a thoughtful blip in the the midst of shaky-cam dominance. I hope it’s the former, but even if it’s the latter, it’s a real pleasure to see action this clearly motivated and skillfully choreographed. An action scene should be a thing of beauty and John Wick is a film of violent, violent beauty.

John Wick (2014, USA)

Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; written by Derek Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and Willem Dafoe.