Studying Storytelling: John Wick

This is Volume 7 in an ongoing series called “Studying Storytelling” in which I review aspects of HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. Read here for more on this series.

Today's Studying Storytelling will set a record for its brevity. Previous installments toed the line for tolerable length in a single blog post, but I got hikes to do y'all so we're gonna bang this one out nice and quick.This is actually sorta perfect for this month's subject, John Wick. 

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the titular character in a good, straightforward action flick. It was a bit of a surprise hit, and something of a breath of fresh air as far as action movies are concerned, when it came out in 2014. Almost every action movie these days is 1) based on a novel, comic or video game 2) a reboot of a previous movie/TV show 3) and/or an over-the-top special effects bonanza where EVERYTHING EXPLODES ALL THE TIME.

John Wick is none of those things. There are special effects of course, but they're pretty tame. There are explosions, but they don't feel like they exist to distract you from how dumb everything else is. More importantly, it's John Wick the character that jumps out. He's brand new. We have no preconceived notions about him and therefore no expectations going in. There is no old TV show where we must reckon with which actor was better, no questions about whether Keanu Reeves captures what the comic book version is like. I had forgotten how much fun it can be to watch an action movie you know nothing about because so many have preexisting reference points.

This is not to suggest John Wick is a cinematic masterpiece. It's just a fun, entertaining action movie. This sounds so simple, and yet most bore me to tears no matter how many buildings blow up or what crazy stunts are pulled off. Here are three things John Wick gets right that other movies seem to get wrong.

The Basics

Hurting a little guy like this is a pretty understandable reason why John Wick puts on his ass-kicking shoes.

Here's all you need to know to get started. Wick's wife has just passed away from some illness. She knew her time was coming and arranged for a beagle puppy to be delivered to him after her passing to help him cope and grieve. While out on the town in his sweet 1969 Mustang with the pup, some Russian dudes give him a hard time at a gas station and say they want to buy his car. He says no, speaking in Russian briefly while he's at it, and moves along. The Russian guys follow him home that night, break in, steal the car and–just in case you were wondering whether they're bad guys–they kill the dog his dead wife gave him.

This, it turns out, was a bad plan. Like, a really bad plan. We quickly learn John Wick is a retired contract killer and the baddest mother around. Everyone is afraid of the guy, especially given how righteously pissed he is. Game on.

Keep It Simple, but Not Too Simple, Stupid

Action movies need to strike a balance. They should be more than a series of gunfights and explosions, but they don't need convoluted plots with bucketfuls of twists and betrayals either. About five or ten minutes into the movie, we have all we need to know to carry us through to the end. Wick's motivations are clear as day, and we learn why he's capable of making good on them.

This "capability" aspect is important. There are few things more grating in an action movie than when a character who has given us no reason to believe he or she is skilled with firearms or a competent fighter suddenly starts kicking ass and taking names. It's dumb. When you make a movie, don't do this.

On the other end we have the problem with super heroes. Why would they ever lose? Thor is virtually invincible. He's going to win. John Wick is tough and capable, but there's always a sense in this movie that he might lose. This calls back to the fact that he's an original character. Because he's not from a comic book where they're clearly trying to create a movie series, it really is possible they'll kill him off in the end. This gives the movie stakes that many action movies fail to establish because we pretty much know what's gonna happen.

Lights, Camera, Action

The action scenes in this movie (which is nearly all of them) are really top-notch. Regardless of whatever else you think about Keanu Reeves as an actor, you can't argue with his chops in a fight scene. The guy is utterly believable in a role like this. He's 50 but looks and moves as well as ever, and his tendency to speak in a calm, nearly monotone voice is an asset here rather than a drawback.

As it turns out, the director was Keanu's body double in The Matrix, so it's unsurprising that 1) he'd know how to craft a role that suits what Keanu does well and 2) he'd have a great eye for fight scene choreography. The choreography is like makeup in a way. It makes the scene look best when you don't really notice it's there. With few exceptions, a fight scene should look like an actual fight and not an elaborately scripted dance number, even when its participants are sold to us as incredibly gifted fighters. Action scenes do not need to be 100% realistic per se, but they should feel plausible within the world of the story.

Ready Player One

This PS3 controller looks kinda like a one-eyed robot.

John Wick is a video game. You just don't get to control it. He always has more bullets available. He kills WAY more bad guys than would be remotely realistic, even while taking damage along the way. He slowly builds up to bigger and bigger enemies, always in pursuit of his quarry, like he's progressing through game levels. Even the music–especially in the big fight set piece in the dance club–is video game music. God, if only actual video game movies were as good as this.

It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what made me feel this way at first, but I think much of it has to do with how the narrative unfolds and how shots are framed. Much of the story alternates between a quiet scene that sets up what's about to happen and why and then moves to an action scene, like video game cutscenes. The way bad guys enter fights is similar to many video games, and the point of view of used through much of the movie feels like a first-person shooter game.

Surprise! A video game based on the movie is coming out. Didn't see that coming at all.

That's a Wrap

John Wick offers few surprises, and I mean that as compliment. It promises a fast paced action movie and delivers. The hour and forty minutes skates by with few lags. It's got a great cast and it feels like they all knew they were making a solid action flick. If you don't dig action movies, this isn't one that will change your mind. But if you do, you won't find many more fun than this.

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