When it comes to choosing the greatest action movie ever there are a lot of films to consider, whether it be a classic like Die Hard or something more modern like The Equaliser.
Let’s be honest though, the genre’s so stuffed with stone cold masterpieces, it’s basically impossible to pick ‘the best action film’ – once you take Die Hard out of the equation that is.
It is, however, a lot easier to pick one when we narrow it down to a certain decade, specifically the last ten years, during which a new iconic action film was released, John Wick.
For those who’ve not had the eye-gasmic pleasure of watching John Wick, it’s basically an explosion of delicious violence and chocolatey catharsis in a crunchy Keanu Reeves coating.
Reeves plays the aforementioned Wick, a retired hitman whose wife, Helen, has just died. On the day of her funeral John receives one final gift from his dearly departed spouse, a little puppy.
Unfortunately, a chance encounter with the brash son of a Russian mafia don leads to the dog being killed and John becoming very, very angry. What follows is Wick obliterating anyone and everyone who gets in his way as he seeks revenge.
From the kinetic and visceral fight choreography to the fascinating and well thought out mythology of the ‘Wickverse’ everything about this film is brilliant.
I’ll be honest there’s only one way to describe how it feels to watch this film, and I’m sorry because it involves some choice language, it feels ‘f*cking amazing’.
In fact, I love how I feel when I watch this film so much I’m going to nail my colours to the mast now with a pencil! I think John Wick is the best action film of the decade.
The first and most obvious reason for it being so brilliant is the way it combines the best elements of other classic action films – which could be considered a cheat but I never said John Wick was original – and polishes them until they gleam.
At its most basic John Wick is a revenge-driven plot like Death Wish. These films are always satisfying to watch because ultimately everyone’s been treated unfairly at some point in their life but they often lack the power to do anything about it.
Wick, on the other hand, is a pure power fantasy that turns this normal paradigm on its head. When the World kicks John Wick down he gets up and breaks the World’s neck.
On the surface, he’s who people dream of being (Maybe without all the killing) a calm, confident person capable of bouncing back from anything, who refuses to be mistreated by anyone.
More so, the film’s not afraid to draw on influences like Die Hard. While Wick may not be an everyman like Bruce Willis’ John McClane character they both share one defining characteristic; they’re lone men against the world with the odds stacked against them.
Again it’s a classic power fantasy, to be so self-sufficient that you don’t need help just your wits and brawn to get you through even the toughest of situations.
These elements mingle together to make Wick the ultimate fantasy for the disenfranchised but there’s more to it than that, and this is where the true genius of John Wick lies. In its main character, the titular John Wick and his characterisation.
While other, frankly lesser films, would celebrate John’s return to violence John Wick treats its main character’s fall from grace as a dreadful thing.
From the moment John sets out to retrieve his car and take revenge his friends and enemies are both terrified. This isn’t the return of an old hero, this is a monster coming back to take what’s his.
As he butchers his way through the litany of thugs and assassins sent after him, the violence, which seemed so stylised and cathartic in the beginning, becomes more brutal and mundane.
So in the climax when John announces ‘Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!’, it’s not a triumphant moment it’s a frightening one because it’s clear the man who Helen loved just died.
What’s so tragic about this is that it’s entirely John’s choice.
The death of Helen and subsequent beating may have threatened his stable, ‘normal’ life, but it’s only when he goes to get revenge that he loses everything and damns himself.
What do I mean? Well by the time the credits roll John’s far worse off than he was in the beginning; his best friend and mentor is dead, he’s ruthlessly murdered another former friend and with the benefit of hindsight we know he’s put himself back on the High Table’s radar.
All he has left is his reputation as Baba Yaga, the one thing Helen didn’t want him to be and as we find out in John Wick 2, John’s suffering has only just begun.
In many ways, I believe that John’s journey through the film is a metaphor for how vulnerable people can be when they’re grieving and how tempting it can be to backslide into destructive patterns of behaviour after the death of a loved one.
Unlike a ‘typical person’, John doesn’t turn to drink or drugs to numb his suffering, instead he copes with his grief by hurting people.
It’s important to remember that throughout John Wick John’s motivations are not altruistic, they’re purely selfish because in his mind he was wronged and as such deserves vengeance.
As viewers, we’re preconditioned to empathise with John because we’re following events from his perspective but really his actions in the film are those of a deeply damaged individual.
This raises questions about the life John had with Helen, from his perspective everything seems fine but everything we see is exactly that, from his perspective.
Could it be that John secretly missed his old violent life and the death of his dog gave him an excuse to revert back to his old executioner ways?
On the surface, John Wick is about violence and vengeance but under that, it’s about morality, how the past can impact our futures, and at its most basic the film asks the question: Can people change?
And, if I’m honest, I think the film gives us an answer of sorts.
People can change, John manages this thanks to Helen, but pre-existing systems, in this case The Continental and the criminal underworld, will make maintaining that change difficult.
It’s a bleak conclusion to reach I know, but this is why I love John Wick, because it’s more than a simple action film and that is what elevates it in my mind at least.
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