Revenge movies have been a dime a dozen for decades. The original “patient zero” in the revenge genre was 1974’s Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. This movie spawned copycats by the dozens for decades, all seeking to improve on the formula of X person dies, X person gets revenge by killing a whole truckload of people responsible. Stories of revenge go back as far as literature itself, even to The Count of Monte Cristo and The Iliad, so it’s incredibly difficult to iterate on the formula and bring something new to the table.
Yet, John Wick did just that, and succeeded beyond all other modern revenge movies. The question is, why? What storytelling mechanisms did the Wick series use that allowed it to succeed where others failed? How did this “simple” action-revenge movie become such a box office success? Let’s look at a few of the reasons.
1. The Dead Significant Other Trope: This is the template for every revenge movie or story. Kill someone, usually a significant other, and set the protagonist in motion. This time though, the significant other happened to be a dog. Not just a dog, but a puppy, given to him by his just deceased wife. We have become so desensitized to the killing of actual people, that no one even blinks an eye at a movie death of someone’s wife or husband. A puppy, however, is the personification of innocence. Killing a dog in any movie is gut wrenching, but to tether it to a dead wife and THEN kill it, is another level entirely. It takes the dead significant other trope, and doubles up, immediately placing us on John’s side and engendering a level of sympathy we wouldn’t have for just a single person.
2. An Insanely Dedicated Actor: It’s not an overstatement to say Keanu Reeves poured everything he had into these movies. Watching the documentary on the filming, he trained for months to pull off the ridiculously complex sequences required for the film. The director deserves credit here, because if you notice, there are fewer camera cuts versus other action movies to allow us to see Keanu himself pulling off these action sequences, be them hand to hand or driving, they show us it’s actually him in these scenes. Interestingly, he has trained so hard and long for these movies and others, he would probably be a legitimate threat in real life.
3. The Bullet Ballet: Choreography is a tricky beast. You can script the most elaborate set of moves imaginable, but if they aren’t filmed correctly, no one can really appreciate the complexity. In watching a play, or a ballet performance, the audience is pulled far enough back to see the whole performance. In John Wick, the director pulls back enough to let us see the performances, and cuts fewer times to make the sequencing more impressive. The museum scene in Wick 2 is a perfect example of showing us intricate movement while retaining the ability to see the actors performing them. I can barely comprehend the complexity of filming the “doggie-jui-jitsu” scene in Wick 3. Elaborate gunplay is difficult enough, but then sequencing it around dog attacks as well? That’s a level no one else is operating at. And my the way, there’s no CG in those scenes, those are real dogs.
4. Mythology: It’s one thing to show an average person in the real world taking revenge on someone that wronged them. It’s another matter entirely to create an entire complex mythological underworld to support that revenge story. Everything from the Currency, Markers, the High Table, to the Continental, to the rules associated and governing these people, places, and items have a level of care and crafting that sets them beyond other movies in the same category.
5. Guns, Lots of Guns: I consider myself an action movie connoisseur. I don’t think there’s a single action movie of any quality I’ve not seen. Be it The Raid, Dredd, Rambo, Die Hard, you name it, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the greats. John Wick, by a mile, has the finest gunplay ever put to film. How then is this different from choreography mentioned above? Technique. Let me give an example, because there are techniques in this movie that make even military personnel raise an eyebrow. In Wick 2’s museum scene, there’s a sequence where he kills a couple of guys, then in a second, twists his wrist to eject a magazine, reloads, then flicks the gun up, catches it in one hand and cranks the slide back to check the chamber. This movement happens so fast, and will go unnoticed by all but an infinitesimal percentage of viewers, but takes insane practice to pull off in the heat of a scene. The way he quad reloads a shotgun is flawless and also takes tremendous practice. In other words, this is one of few action movies to portray not only an incredible array of weaponry, but undeniable technique in their use.
6. Substance and Style: We know from the above items that the substance is there, but in addition the Wick series makes it all look super cool. From the various lighting tricks, shadows, and color play, all of this high end technique and sequencing is shown in the slickest and coolest manner possible. Even the blood sprays are done exactly correctly, as a friend of mine who studied forensics pointed out.
So there you have it. In case anyone was wondering why Wick became such a phenomenon there’s a few reasons why and some lessons we can apply to our own storytelling. As a bonus, be sure to check out The Raid series, which is just as good in many ways, and Hard Boiled, arguably the most influential action movie of all time.
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