Good action movies, the kind that make you wince in pain one second and then pump your fist with excitement the next, were so prevalent when I was growing up in the 80s and are so rare now that whenever one comes along it feels like you’ve stumbled onto some kind of priceless artifact, or like you’re indulging in some sort of outdated thrill that’s long since been made illegal. The only differences between action movies then and action movies now though is a willingness on the part of studios to embrace an R-rating and a willingness on the part of experienced directors who know how to construct an action scene to work in the genre. Too often now the action film, which should be aimed toward a niche audience, is instead aimed at a wide one, and the results are homogenized and bland movies. And too often the genre is used as a proving ground for new filmmakers who have just come off of making music videos or web shorts, and the results are movies that are messy and hard to follow, thanks to the people in charge learning while on the job and having to take editing shortcuts to simulate spectacles that were beyond their capabilities of actually creating.
John Wick, a new action-heavy revenge film that stars Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who goes on a rampage after a group of young mafioso punks steal his car and kill his dog, is one of those rare modern movies that does action right. It’s exciting, it’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it knows how to construct action scenes that are both thrilling to look at and also easy to appreciate. Maybe that’s because its first-time directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both have lengthy lists of credits working as Hollywood stuntmen. Could it be possible that these guys got sick of punishing their bodies to create action scenes that were ultimately ruined thanks to the close-in camerawork and quick-editing of filmmakers who weren’t savvy enough to exploit their efforts, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and make their own movie where the craftsmanship of the stuntmen and fight choreographers could be featured front and center? Whatever their motivations, Leitch and Stahelski have made a movie that at least feels like it was put together by frustrated action junkies with something to prove.