The John Wick movies are set in a highly stylised neo-noir world of assassins that exist in and around us. Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as the taciturn hit man forced to reluctantly return to the fold after his puppy gets killed by a Russian gangster in the first movie (no really, well there is a bit more to it than that, but the dog theme is a running gag).
The third instalment carries straight on from the second movie, as that did from the first. The stakes get higher and the bodycount soars. What has stayed consistent through all three movies however are the rich visuals, the first movie had Johnathan Sela as cinematographer (also known for Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw amongst many). Instalments two and three have been shot by Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak). Here is the latest trailer for John Wick 3 Parabellum:
Notice how you get a trailer to the trailer, immediately before the trailer? Blame social media and ever reducing attention spans, sticking that at the front allows the punters to see whether it’s worth watching to the end apparently.
The Wick movies have been something of a surprise, the first comfortably managed nearly $89 million globally on a budget in the region of $25 million, Chapter 2 made $171.5 million on a $40 million budget. Chapter Three is released in May 2019. The films have barged aside the superhero and sci-fi blockbusters clogging cinemas to carve it’s own genre stamping ground. In fact the first film came out of nowhere with very little hype, not unlike another movie that Reeves’ starred in twenty years ago – ‘The Matrix‘. The Warchowski’s movie redefined the action genre and set Keanu up as the thinking nerds action hero. As John Wick he goes on to redefine the revenge genre that Liam Neeson is making more tedious with every identikit movie he makes. A new term has been coined ‘Gun-Fu’ to describe the close quarters combat that is taken to the level of a violent ballet in the trilogy.
Director Chad Stahelski is well equipped to take the action onto new levels, he’s a hugely experienced stuntman, stunt co-ordinator and martial arts expert, funnily enough working on the Matrix movies as a co-ordinator and stunt double for Reeves. The first John Wick movie he co-directed with David Leitch, the second two he’s helmed himself. In fact there is a great Matrix call back in the Parabellum trailer above, where Reeves is reunited with Laurence Fishburn (Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy) and delivers the line ‘guns, lots of guns’ (OK so I’m a fan…). We are looking at an action heritage stretching back 20+ years, and you can see every bit of it on the screen.
This is a stylised fantasy world, violent, operatic and balletic. Visually it is a collision between dark and light, warm and cold, wide establishing shots allow emotion to play out in every scene. Dialogue scenes in particular revel in the nuances of expression in the actors in close up. Dan finds the poetry in the detail through deliciously indulgent lighting, and indulgent is a good descriptor, the world that these assassins inhabit is decadent and impeccably dressed, the production design is stunning, so every frame is almost baroque in its intensity.
The aesthetic is dark but flooded by colour, something that Dan Laustsen has perfected on his work with Guillermo del Toro. Laustsen is a great advocate of shooting action wide to let the audience see and feel the action, with action this intense and well choreographed they don’t need to use frenetic editing or shakey cam to hide the joins. This is where Stahelski’s direction really shines, and Laustsen showcases the beauty in the action.
Shot on digital with Arri Alexa cameras, advocates of digital over film will credit the saturation and density of the colours to the format, yet Laustsen is a pragmatic man and points out that they could have achieved the look equally well on film, saying ‘cameras are just a tool. You have to decide what the look of the movie is going to be.’ but acknowledges that there is more control in post with digital footage.
Rewriting the rules
John Wick has redefined the action movie. Your average Hollywood blockbuster has become a tired and predictable old dog, just look at White House Down, Die Hard again and again and again for Christ’s sake. John Wick is a welcome antidote to these dinosaurs that are just a set of over the top set pieces relying too much on CGI, defying physics and our patience. Dan Laustsen has put a rich and absorbing vision on screen, and helped defy the all too common occurrence of sequels offering diminishing returns.