Tom Jolliffe on why John Wick director Chad Stahelski is the perfect choice to helm the Highlander reboot…
Stunt-man turned director Chad Stahelski has certainly had a good start to his burgeoning career as an action auteur. John Wick began what is now in the process of becoming a hugely successful franchise. Two films in, with a booming and expansive box office appeal. Next up for him is, all being well (as this project has long gestated and had directors come and go, year on year) is a remake of Highlander.
Now I should state two things now. Firstly, I love Highlander. The first film is an underrated piece of brilliance. From the visuals, to the music to the sheer style of it, Highlander is one of a kind. It then spawned four more films (none of which were good) and a TV show, as well as comics, anime and more. The original film though was unique, fresh, and whilst utterly daft, actually managed to be dramatically effective in moments. I mean when Who Wants To Live Forever belts out as immortal Connor MacLeod’s wife dies of old age (whilst hubby of course remains the same age as when they first met) I get dusty room syndrome. There’s real ingenuity about the film too. Director Russell Mulcahy was a rising director known primarily for music videos and a low budget Ozploitation horror flick called Razorback, and he didn’t follow the film-making rulebooks. Visually dazzling, the film’s scene transitions between present and flashback in particular were fantastically realised.
Secondly I am not generally a fan of remakes. There are too many. Most of them with no demand, no scope, no passion and they often end up in the hands of visionless guns for hire. When you’re remaking cult films which have their own imitable style (even if said film wasn’t a financial success initially) and the key change you make is to make everything very conventional, then you essentially scrape off any magic that made the original worthy of cult following and you only succeed in adding to a long list of dull and forgettable clunkers. Think The Hitcher remake, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Total Recall, Robocop, or Point Break to name a few. All dreadful and lifeless.
So the prospect of a childhood favourite like Highlander being remade has always filled me with disdain. It’s such a one-off film, that remaking it is extremely difficult. You can’t recreate what made it great, and it’s an idea that can’t be treated like any old conventional pot-boiler. There’s not a great demand or need for it either. That being said, the idea, if done right and marketed properly, has lots of potential to capture an audience. The idea of building a world to house the core mythology offers plenty of caveats for a good film-maker, the right film-maker to launch a potential franchise. Potential to gain an audience whether steadily, or capturing hordes with a bang, means that if done right, you have the possibility of a very profitable franchise.
Blade Runner is my favourite film ever. We’ve got a sequel/reboot this year. Initially I hated the very idea of touching my beloved classic. I was won round though. Why? Because the director chosen (in addition to obtaining great cast and crew) just stood out as audacious, well-fitting and open to the possibility of doing something genuinely worthy of the Blade Runner name. For this reason, I’m delighted Chad Stahelski has been earmarked for the director’s chair for the new Highlander.
Stahelski is a perfect choice to ignite a potentially quality franchise. He’s really proved his chops with the Wick films. The films have many strengths. One of these is world building. Within 15 minutes of John Wick you get the world. You’re in it. They set up the character efficiently. The mythology behind Wick is vague enough to intrigue, but not so much as to alienate, whilst with every engagement with another character we obtain a few more nuggets which add further to the character. It’s not just the character either but the world he inhabits. All good film worlds should set out parameters and rules. The audience needs to know how things work and what happens if these rules are broken. This is where ideas like the High table, the Continental and individual elements like the coins or markers come in. It doesn’t take long in John Wick (or Chapter 2) to give the audience the required info. Bang. Done. I loved Batman Begins but it spent nigh on an hour setting up Bruce Wayne to become Batman. Blockbusters these days are over stuffed, bloated and too loaded with superfluous characters and exposition. John Wick in his profession, in his creation, and every aspect, is ruthlessly efficient.
The world of Wick is engaging, fast paced and exciting. It doesn’t take long to buy into the idea that Wick is the boogeyman and not to be trifled with. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously either. It revels in creating this figure of fear, the mention of whose name strikes fear into the hearts of anyone stupid enough to incur his wrath. In Chapter 2 when the film teases to overstep the line and play on the “John Wick is…” card too much, a knowing henchman has to stop his boss from telling the old John Wick killing a guy with a pencil story because “yeah, yeah, he killed a guy with a pencil, I know!” Elements of the story are ludicrous but that’s the idea. If you’re pulled into the world, you can let it slide and it even becomes feasible. Wick grabs you quickly and doesn’t let you go. Mad Max: Fury Road was an action film that had a similar, almost beautifully simple purity in opening a world to us and just getting the hell on with moving things along.
Another reason Stahelski will be a great choice is because of the action. John Wick’s key selling point is Gun-Fu. The visceral, brutal and elegant action scenes roar at you with a pace and unrestrained flair that evokes the classic era of Hong Kong action cinema when John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark ruled the roost. The action is relentless and doesn’t let up. It didn’t let up in the first film, but even more so in the sequel which turns the notch well and truly up to eleven. All the action in the Wick films is impressive. It really helps having an actor like Keanu Reeves, willing to perform the majority of his own fights and stunts too because you can pull the camera back and you can extent cuts and not have to hide a stunt double so much. The action is frantic, relentless, but clear. The way the Gun-Fu flows and the way the action is cut just seems to evoke a sword fight. It just feels like you could edit out the guns and put in swords and it would still work. Stahelski has already suggested that he’d like to do for sword play what he did with the gunplay in John Wick, which frankly, would be epic. That in itself is one way to really make the remake stand out from the original by modernising and centralising the sword fights and making them a key selling point of the film. They never were particularly in the original, this is where the reboot can find its own significant strength.
One other reason that he will do a great job is because of the visual style of the two Wick films. You would hope that he would bring back the Director of Photography Dan Laustsen who shot John Wick: Chapter 2. The film looks amazing. Laustsen also lensed the odd genre melding French action/horror Brotherhood of the Wolf, which was a bonkers but brilliant and utterly gorgeous film. Mulcahy’s Highlander looked great. This means a remake needs to be visually interesting. It can’t look like it’s come off a production line. It can’t look lifeless. John Wick 2 looks great. It’s got some beautiful production design and it combines very well with Stahelski’s direction and Laustsen’s photography. In particular, the finale, that evokes Enter The Dragon or The Man With The Golden Gun’s finales (on acid) is glorious. At that point in watching the second Wick, I thought “hell yes…this guy could do Highlander.” It was bordering on fantasy, but this is what I’m talking about with world building. This is the John Wick universe. It is nigh-on fantasy. Both Stahelski’s films look fantastic, so whether it’s Laustsen, or Jonathan Sela (who shot the first) or someone else, I’d trust him to pick the right man to create a dazzling visual palette.
Possibly the most important factor that makes him an ideal choice for Highlander is the fact he has a passionate appreciation of the material. A fan of the films, and indeed TV and comics, he knows all about the world and has ideas in creating an engaging and open world with franchise potential. Stahelski seems keen to possibly re-incorporate Queen. This I’m torn on. It would be great, and it would compliment the film visually (if it lives up to the levels set in Wick), but at the same time I don’t think you can make another film so Queen-centric. Yes, have 2-3 tracks, but they can’t get too bogged down in fan service. I’m sure Chad will create something that is its own entity with enough nods to the original to satisfy fans, but there’s a line which he has to be careful not to cross. By the same token you can’t leave the original entirely behind either.
I never thought I’d say it but I’m really looking forward to the Highlander remake. The potential is huge. Furthermore I’ll add that the closing part of the John Wick trilogy (as intended) cannot come soon enough either. Hell, I’d even like Stahelski to throw his hat into the ring for James Bond and re-brand JB with a new face and style. I’ll simply close by adding to what our reviews for John Wick: Chapter 2 have suggested, and recommend you get down the cinema to see Keanu Reeves opening up all kinds of whoop-ass. It’s a quality action film.