Tom Jolliffe looks at the John Wick and Mission: Impossible franchises, the current best in action cinema…
Some Spoilers follow:
So Mr. Wick has just come out for his third adventure. Some suggestion beforehand had hinted it could potentially be his last. Three can often be a good number to close with. Of course that doesn’t stop further adventures (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, etc, etc) but with dust cleared on the carnage of Parabellum, Chad Stahelski lays a very clear path that heads to John Wick 4.
The success of Wick has come a little by surprise. In 2014, when the first film arrived it came out of the blue. A film starring Keanu Reeves, whose box office flame was almost extinguished entirely. Much like Taken a few years prior, there was some mulling over whether to even give the film a theatrical release. After all, it’d been shot for a modest 20 million dollar budget. They released it. It came out in what is atypically a dead time of year for box office. Whilst it didn’t incinerate the box office in the same way as a Marvel film, it made a great return on investment, and more importantly began a slow burning word of mouth. If Taken was just running its course at that point having become somewhat iconic, John Wick was being ear marked as ‘the new Taken.’
The one which started off the run still holds up well. It looks nice, the fights are great and it begins the world building of markers, consecrated ground hotels and Wick’s fearsome, relentless reputation very well. The action choreography was excellent and gun-fu went from something that look ridiculous in Equilibrium, to something that looked pretty cool. You buy into the notion pretty early, that Wick exists in a kind of graphic novel, hyper real universe. It’s very comic book, but it’s for adults and there’s no spandex.
The second film opened the world, opened the set ups and began an obsession with great set piece settings, in particularly with the great Enter The Dragon ode during the finale. Further more the visual scope of John Wick: Chapter 2 was glorious. It’s an exquisite looking film. A great cohesion between the costume, production design, set design, locations team and the cinematographer, Dan Laustsen. Laustsen returns for the latest, and having watched it already, he’s even outdone his stellar work in Chapter 2. In addition we’ve seen a slow growth in budgets from the very modest 20 million dollars of the first film to the 55 million of the third. It’s still modest but with the last two in particular, these movies look and feel big.
When we consider the action genre these days, there are a number of franchises out as far as pure action. Those MCU films are kind of different. They’re not in that kind of mould that I grew up with, watching Arnold and Sly etc causing wanton destruction. It’s far more fantastical. Yes, something like Wick for example builds its own mythos, but all still within very adult action confides, focused on grounded, hand to hand combat. There may be some breaks in reality, but largely, everything boils down to two guys on the ground absolutely battering each other and it’s more a great display of stunt work than CGI master-class. Wick is Neo-Noir, with Neo-classical soundtrack (in places) and Neo-Retro. It’s old school but it’s packaged in a very sleek and modern way.
For me at this time, you’ve got a few champions of old school action. Dwayne Johnson is as close to that larger than life walking cartoon that was an in pomp Schwarzenegger as you can get, and he’s done some decent action films. He vastly improved the Fast and Furious franchise by his very presence, but they’ve been getting progressively sillier, with a danger of not having quite enough tongue in cheek about some of the silliness (Wick gets the balance beautifully. It acknowledges, without making fun). There’s a lot of humour in those Fast and Furious films, but occasionally entire scenes and skits break up the rhythm. Like some of the action it just goes a bit overboard, while the deadly serious presence of Vin Diesel, is actually beginning to look out of place. Hobbs & Shaw looks insane, ridiculous, but in isolating Johnson and Statham, and throwing in Idris Elba, they may have found a great new formula of the 80’s reluctant buddy up, and put it on an acid trip. Johnson still needs that headlining and iconic series. He may be the best thing in the Fast films, but it’s still run by Diesel. Still, if this marks the beginning of a Hobbs & Shaw series, Johnson will get his big action franchise.
Someone who does have the iconic franchise which gravitates around them is Tom Cruise. Right now, the two action franchises which most appeal to me, which seem to do it all right, and which build great levels of anticipation are John Wick and Mission: Impossible. Why do Ethan Hunt’s adventures work so well? In part it’s the rare franchise where almost everything rests on practical effects and stunt work. It’s as close to being made in the way something like Rambo: First Blood 2 would have been made in the 80’s. When something explodes, it explodes for real. When someone does a bike jump, they do it for real. You may get wire removal, but the stunt itself, is practically achieved. If someone jumps a building, they jump a fucking building boys and girls. That someone too, 9 times out of 10 is Tommy C himself.
A huge part of what sells Cruise’s franchise is his now constant battle to one up himself. Descend the tallest building in the world? Sure. Hang out the side of a military carrier plane as it takes off? Sure. Leap a building (And shatter his ankle in the process)? Sure. Do a Halo jump? Bring it! Are we all sort of sadistically wondering just which M:I film will be the death of Tom Cruise? The man is crazy but this anticipation before every film now is feverish. Does anyone care about James Bond any more? Daniel Craig, who looked bored to tears in Spectre is hanging around like a bad fart in a lift. Production troubles abound, and persistent fascination with who comes next. It’s getting boring. Should Bond be black? Should Bond be a woman? Should Bond respect #MeToo? It’s a no to all. He’s a specific character. But you know what? He’s inherently outdated. You can still show relics of yesteryear in film, it’s called character. At least for the next decade or so, Craig’s last outing should call time on Bond and allow breathing space before a reboot. If you want a black spy, make something standalone, ditto every other variation that people have wanted of Bond. Hunt is infinitely more enticing at the moment.
So whilst we wait with bated breath about which massive stunt Cruise will do in his next outing as Hunt, John Wick is building his own sense of anticipation between films. Every Wick film has a standout mano-a-mano where Wick meets an opponent almost matching him. In the first film he fought Daniel Bernhardt. In the second he has two savage throw-downs with Common. Coming into the third, I thought it’d be difficult to top that brawl with Common. They topped it several times over in Wick 3. Here’s one other aspect the Wick franchise has; It has great casting. The name Daniel Bernhardt may not register with many. He’s a stunt guy with a sideline background of being one of a slew of straight to video action stars in the 90’s. Most famously he took over leading duties in the Bloodsport franchise (which began with Jean-Claude Van Damme). Common’s been around the block and done his own share of DTV action among his bigger roles.
In the third film, Stahelski and the casting department outdid themselves. There’s a host of great fighters throughout, from Tiger Chen to Roger Yuan, and even more prominently two guys from The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. Then to top it all off, someone FINALLY put Mark Dacascos in a tentpole film and gave him the room to shine. Here’s the thing; Think back over the last 20 years to those action fan dream face-off’s in American action films. Jet Li vs Dolph Lundgren in The Expendables, Van Damme vs Stallone and Statham vs Scott Adkins in Expendables 2, Jet Li vs Mark Dacascos in Cradle 2 The Grave. Plus many many more. None lived up to expectation. It’s usually smaller films (Van Damme vs Lundgren round 2 in Universal Soldier: Regeneration), or face offs in Chinese films (Mike Tyson against Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3) that seem to live up more. The Wickverse will cast great action guys, and never waste them. Further, add to the mix that Halle Berry, who could well return is an absolute revelation in this. Utterly Wick-Fu-ing memories of Catwoman into oblivion. If we’re speaking of ways to re-ignite Bond, sign me up for the return of Jinx.
John Wick has an epically relentless fight from the dudes from Raid. Meanwhile, Mark Dacascos is allowed to build an engaging villain with a playful sense of humour and no shortage of respect for Mr Wick. One thing Dacascos always had when allowed the platform to display it, was acting ability. Combined with his physical prowess, and the fact that Stahelski doesn’t waste him, it’s the best role he’s had since Mani in Brotherhood of the Wolf, and whilst that had a small cult following, John Wick 3 offers a much grander stage. It’s really a pleasure as a long time fan to see Dacascos getting to show his stuff, and to get many of the choice moments (including the biggest laughs in a film which has some great, macabre humour).
Then centrally, to all these great elements in the Wick franchise is the man himself, Keanu Reeves. Often unfairly dismissed as a limited actor, he’s never given the full respect he deserves. Even as an action man, after the likes of Speed, Point Break, and The Matrix Trilogy, with all the physical willingness showed, he wasn’t even entirely given his dues as a bad ass action man. John Wick changed that entirely. The role suits himself perfectly. He gets ample moments of vulnerable reflection, and it allows him to display an intensity we’ve seen him give in some of his dramatic work, and imbue it within an action film with a darker character. Has he come of age? He still looks like he’s in his 30’s, but to an extent to play Wick effectively he had to wait until he hit 50, and add on the beard for some additional ruggedness. The whole image, his performance and the physicality make Wick thoroughly engaging. Reeve’s physical dedication and never less than 110% effort also allow the film-makers to pull back and film wide. We can see what’s going on. There’s a kind of trademark lank sway to his fighting. If the intricacy of The Matrix was beautiful but looking almost a little too meticulously rehearsed (though within that world it fits) there’s a down and dirty imperfection to the Wickverse fighting that makes it seem more realistic.
One thing that struck me about the action in Parabellum, is that whilst the previous films had the magnificent settings for the sequences, this one added an extra layer of invention. I once said of Wick 2 that it had this kind of relentless thumping craziness of John Woo’s masterpiece, Hard Boiled. Now granted, nothing will ever match the set pieces in Hard Boiled (not least because every piece of wanton destruction was captured practically in a way we’ll never see again). Still, to even evoke that film, complete with great colours, neons and ante-upping set pieces that almost never end, is amazing. Further, Parabellum generally captures a glorious sense of the golden age of Hong Kong action. It’s brilliantly exhausting, but particularly there’s some of that invention that someone like Jackie Chan perfected in the 80’s. The way the settings and mise-en-scene come into play in these set pieces (particularly the library opening, the horse sequence, the dogs and ‘the knives battle’) is exhilarating. It’s rare that action scenes cause an audience to erupt in a mutual roar of ‘Holy shit!’ In Parabellum it’s a common occurrence.
What Parabellum has done too is further shake up the R-rated action film. When a month ago people bemoaned the groan-worthy and unimaginative Hellboy remake, and the trailer for Angel Has Fallen show how tired the action genre can look, Parabellum is an invigorating horse kick to the skull. Given the box office impact it will have too, the fourth is inevitable and it has now set itself a high bar as one of the two best action franchises in cinema.
Let us know your verdict on John Wick 3: Parabellum. Is the Wick franchise one of the best action series of the modern era? Leave us a comment below or find us on Twitter @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.