“We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people.”
These are the words of Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman responsible for manning the outrageously brilliant John Wick franchise.
Before we first see John Wick killing off opponents via a speeding car in the opening minutes of John Wick 2, we see images from Buster Keaton’s The General projected onto a building. This image is just a straightforward homage to this 2017 film’s early influences and no further reason for its inclusion is provided. Or is there? Keaton, renowned for his deadpan acting and fiercely excellent stunts back in the early years of cinema doubles up as an interesting model for the character of John Wick.
Keanu Reeves has long been criticised for not being able to deliver dialogue, his mouth and face unable to portray range. His delivery of acting, instead, relies on movement; an innate determination to conduct all of his stunts himself. Even at the age of 52.
Throughout the film, despite the physical pain inflicted by his enemies and the emotional pain of losing his wife, Reeves’ face and words never quite reveal that anguish. Instead, he remains sternly hell bent on causing chaos and enacting revenge. Typically, that becomes a problem – a mark of sheer disconnect between the audience and the picture. But it is never a problem in this franchise. Reeves’ deadpan delivery is employed by director Stahelski to emphasise Wick’s inability to de-compartmentalise his pain. Killing, powered by immense marksmanship and adrenaline, is Wick’s coping mechanism. It is only right that he loses himself in those moments, focusing more on the catharsis of his actions than the hurt of losing his wife.
Buster Keaton may not have been an action star like Reeves but, if had he the means and genre development of today, you can rest assured he would be. Those years of Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Keaton himself were years of reliance on movement. Every movement had to be coordinated; filmmakers had to be able to tell a story using a body and a face. Reeves’ portrayal of Wick echoes back to the art of Keaton’s acting. His expressionless face amidst terribly dangerous situations harkens back to Steamboat Bill Jr., a film in which an entire house falls on top of Keaton, only for his character to survive through a window. Throughout this entire sequence, his face does not reflect the danger. It remains empty; it never changes. As Wick maneuvers through piles of enemies with the intent, skill, and strength to hurt him, he never once flinches. His movement is constant. He is throwing empty pistols, disarming opponents with armbars, all the while various men and women fire bullets and launch knives in his direction. Amidst this all, he is still capable of delivering lines like “you wanted me back, I’m back!”
The John Wick franchise elicits laughs courtesy of Reeves’ dialogue, but we are not laughing at him. We are laughing with him, through a film wonderfully indebted to and influenced by classic cinema. Just as it seems like it may be taking itself a tad seriously, we get hilarious sequences, like that of Wick getting ready for an assault on Gianna D’Antonio in the catacombs of Rome. “I need something precise,” he implies, as he is equipped with weapon after weapon, clothed in suit after suit. These small, intermittent moments between the action allow the film to take a step back and wink at the audience.
Among the film’s expertly executed action sequences, none stands out more than the fight in the Hall of Mirrors. This dazzlingly choreographed action set uses setting as an homage to films past. While directly influenced by Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), the influence can be traced just as cleanly, even further back, to Chaplin’s The Circus (1918). In that film, Chaplin finds himself trapped by the mirrors. Its visual aesthetic is a clear influence on this gorgeous piece of action that John Wick 2 offers up. Furthermore, The Circus exists to explore a man being employed to carry out a task that he is not supposed to be a part of. Chaplin’s homeless Tramp character clearly influences the grieving John Wick. Both are pulled out of their comfort zone by extenuating circumstances, both are forced to quickly adapt to the situation at hand. It is no coincidence, then, that both movies share an extensive mirror scene. A moment where both characters are trapped by their own reflection. A film so deeply engrained in its metaphors and imagery like John Wick 2 clearly uses these mirrors beyond simple aesthetics. Wick fighting his way out of the mirrors is Wick, essentially, running away from himself; his emotions. He never once connects with the mirrors, but he spends a lot of time shooting them, throwing people through them. He is afraid of his own reflection, afraid of facing himself.
In one of the John Wick 2’s most climactic sequences–the subway shootout between Common’s Cassian and Wick–the comedy of movement is brought forth once more. The long, wide takes are breathtaking and place emphasis on the expert choreography of the action, yet all of this is sent into the background when Cassian and Wick begin firing bullets across from one another without disrupting commuting New Yorkers. They hide their guns in their blazers, shooting over the shoulder unassumingly and quickly. Despite the controlled chaos of their assassins’ rivalry, this moment once again sees Stahelski and his team throwing a wink toward the audience. They know what they are doing. They know mass crowds running away from violence only pollutes the image, making it unnecessarily busy. So, instead, they insert a moment of comedy to both relax the audience and make it so that the shootout between Cassian and Wick can be flaunted with no collateral damage.
In fact, even the promotional poster used for this film–one where Reeves stares absently at a camera while surrounded by heaps of pistols pointed at him–is a recreation of Harold Lloyd’s 1918 comedy Two-Gun Gussie. In that piece of art created after the film’s release, Lloyd is surrounded by pistols – he too stares, almost absently, into the distance. This is a franchise that borrows aesthetics and modernises them, creating this gorgeous melange of old school and new. Who would have a thought a blockbuster capable of this?
Ruby Rose’s character, Ares, is entirely silent throughout the film. An on-the-nose send up to silent cinema, sure, but what sticks out most with Rose is her fighting. Behind-the-scenes clips reveal that Rose, Common and Reeves carried out all of their stunts. Each punch, each bit of movement, each grapple – all of it is conducted solely by these actors. Stahelski assembled a team of actors happy to do their own stunts, much like Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton did in their time. It gives the film an air of originality and makes the action effortlessly satisfying to the eye.
The John Wick franchise may be easy to mistakeas a serious piece of realistic action cinema. But it clearly does not want to be pigeonholed in such a manner. The aforementioned examples show that this is a franchise that wants the audience to know that it is having fun with its story and action. Stahelski does not want this film to exist merely as a self-serious action picture. In the same manner, Keaton had literal houses falling on top of him, escaping through means of physical comedy. He did not want his deadpan demeanour to be taken extremely seriously, instead employing these bizarre moments of humour to help keep the tone fresh and the audience engaged.
The John Wick franchise does not just tip its hat to silent cinema, it straight up wears its influences on its bullet-ridden sleeve. It gives the franchise some panache, an air of class amidst its brutality and chaotic images.
Featured Image: United Artists