With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
John Wick (2014)
In the entire history of American action cinema, there are very, very few movies that take their fight scenes as seriously as John Wick does. Some of the action set pieces in John Wick—the home invasion, the one-man nightclub siege—are straight-up masterpieces, and the movie never lingers long between these exquisitely crafted depictions of mayhem. But my favorite scene in the movie isn’t a fight. It’s the part where Viggo, the movie’s lead Russian gangster, has to tell his son just how badly he’d fucked up. Viggo’s boy, Iosef, has broken into the home of a “fucking nobody.” He’s killed the man’s dog, stolen his car, and left him unconscious. Viggo, played by the late Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, doesn’t mind any of this. He just minds that Iosef did all this to the wrong guy.
Carefully and patiently, Viggo tells Iosef that he and his associates used to call John Wick, that nobody, baba yaga—the bogeyman. And then he continues, “John wasn’t exactly the bogeyman.” Dramatic pause. “He was the one you send to kill the fucking bogeyman.” A moment later, as that sinks in: “I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil. A fucking. Pencil.”
That scene comes before any of the movie’s fights, and it tells us a whole lot of things we need to know. It tells us that Wick is an absolute avenging angel of death, of course, and it gives us context for the life that he left behind when he fell in love and got married. But that scene also tells us what kind of movie we’re watching. It’s a movie that takes place in its own universe, that leaves behind any notion of realism or naturalism. It tells us that we are watching myths and archetypes, that the movie is going to be a sort of tone-poem homage to history’s great bleak, existentialist action movies. It tells us that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch know their Melville and their Woo. The first time I watched John Wick, I spent that entire scene cackling with glee. That scene promised a lot, and the movie paid off on it.
I have to imagine that the person who greenlit John Wick thought he’d be getting another Taken clone; 2014 was the era of the Taken clone. A few years earlier, Liam Neeson had revitalized his career by playing a leathery, regretful death-dealer in a cheap, unpretentious B-movie, and other aging movie stars were trying to do the same with theirs. Denzel Washington made The Equalizer. Sean Penn made The Gunman. John Wick, originally titled Scorn, could’ve turned out to be one of those.
Instead, John Wick turned out to be a whole new mold: a sleek, stylish, and deeply silly studio B-movie that takes place in its own fully realized world. And after years of choppy, illegible Hollywood action scenes, it revived the visceral beauty of a well-shot, well-choreographed fight, succeeding in making Keanu Reeves look like an absolutely unstoppable killing machine. These days, people aren’t making their own Taken knockoffs anymore. They’re more likely to make John Wick clones, like Ben Affleck in The Accountant, say, or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. That’s a good thing. The John Wick clones have been way better than the Taken clones.
In some ways, John Wick was a very familiar movie. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of quiet, soulful, and well-dressed hitmen pulled back into the killing game by tragedy, forced to eliminate their old bosses. We’ve seen a lot of broken loners going on quests of revenge after seeing their families die. We’ve seen badasses so cold that they take out entire armies of anonymous cannon-fodder types. We’ve seen underworld stories in which the police barely even seem to exist. John Wick is, in a lot of ways, a traditional action movie, one that works very much within the rules and structures of the genre.
But in other ways, John Wick is a strange statement of a movie—one that takes all those tropes and makes them as weird and otherworldly as possible. For one thing, when John Wick goes to war with the Russian mob of New York, he’s not avenging any actual people. Instead, he’s avenging the death of a dog, an adorable puppy gifted to him by his dead wife. Iosef insists, over and over, that it was just a dog, as if this is going to help him in any way. It’s a beautiful little subversion of an old revenge-movie trope. People hate seeing dogs die in movies, so we’re spared the usual Death Wish-style scene of rape and murder. Even the dog dies offscreen. Instead, we get to skip straight to the revenge. And the movie knows it’s absurd for Wick to be killing dozens of people to avenge a dog that he’d only had for, what, a day? But it works on a couple of levels. At one point, Wick says that the dog represented all the hope he had left in the world, telling us that that’s what sent him off on that killing spree. So it’s an effective story device. But it’s also a grand cosmic joke. Because after all, it was just a fucking dog.
Taking this simple and unreal pretense as its starting point, the movie builds an entire world. This is a universe full of hitmen. There are so many, in fact, that they have their own hotel, a place where any actual killing is expressly forbidden. That’s one of the rules of this hitman world that everyone understands. Another is that everyone is supposed to pay for stuff in gold coins. Even the police seem to know what’s going on. At one point, a cop comes to Wick’s door and sees a body lying on the floor behind him. His response: “You, uh, working again?” Wick: “No, just sorting some stuff out.” That’s good enough for the cop, who backs right out. John Wick: Chapter Two, the movie’s 2017 sequel, builds on all of this and turns it into something even more gloriously alien. But it’s all there in the first movie—a violent hidden world, right under our noses.
A year before starring in John Wick, Keanu Reeves went to Hong Kong and China to make his directorial debut. Man Of Tai Chi isn’t what you might expect from the moment that an aging movie star steps behind the camera. Instead, it’s a great little underground-fighting movie, one made with a slightly incoherent plot and a great respect for fight choreography. The movie almost makes more sense as a collection of fight scenes than as a traditional narrative. It’s mostly in Chinese, but Reeves himself plays the villain, a glowering evil American billionaire who makes people fight to the death. And he made the whole thing as a vehicle for Tiger Chen, a Chinese martial artist who’d been one of the fight choreographers for The Matrix.
Man Of Tai Chi was, for me, the moment that Reeves became an all-time elite action star. He’d already had a surprising number of classic action movies on his résumé: Point Break, Speed, the Matrix movies. He’d done many of his own stunts in Speed and trained hard in wire-fu for The Matrix. But I’d always thought of him as an actor who sometimes did action movies, not as a straight-up action star. Man Of Tai Chi revealed Reeves to be something else: someone so in love with the genre that he’d make a labor of love like that. And John Wick is the moment he solidified his spot in the history of the genre. Keanu Reeves is, quite simply, one of the greatest action stars of all time. He might be the single greatest, no qualifiers necessary.
Think about it: Reeves was 50 when John Wick came out, and he still went out of his way to make the movie as hard and physical as possible. He recruited his Matrix stunt doubles Stahelski and Leitch to direct the movie even though they’d never directed a movie before. (Reeves’ devotion to the Matrix stunt team is, to my mind, one of the most endearing things about him.) He threw himself into training, learning styles of martial arts that he’d never attempted. And he pulled off these incredible fight scenes—scenes that mix gunplay with hand-to-hand grappling in believable ways, scenes in which he has to pull off these great stunts without the benefit of quick-cutting. He even did a fair amount of his stunt-driving. And he put in an affecting, grounded performance on top of all of that, bringing this absurdist world to life with the sheer weight of his facial expressions and body language. And he delivers his best badass lines with absolute panache and confidence. (Viggo: “They know you’re coming.” Wick: “Of course. But it won’t matter.”)
There’s a ruthless efficiency to the way Reeves moves in the movie. The way he kills people tells more of a story than the actual story does. He’ll punch someone, then shoot him, then punch him again. Sometimes, he’ll take a bad guy down in a leglock, holding him immobile while he shoots a couple of other bad guys, and then shoot the original bad guy while that guy is lying helpless on the floor. A scene like that one-man nightclub invasion is put together with absolute precision, ratcheting things up gradually until it becomes something insane and surreal. It’s beautifully lit and shot and edited, like Drive or something, but all of that atmosphere serves to highlight the action. There’s a scene near the end where Viggo, on the way to his final showdown with Wick, laughs maniacally. It’s not because he thinks he’s going to win. He knows he’s about to die. He’s just having so much fun watching Wick work. We, the audience, knows how he feels.
John Wick made an impact. It made money and earned critical raves, something that I don’t think anyone expected of it. It spawned a whole universe‚ two movies, with another on the way, and a spin-off TV series called The Continental reportedly in the works. One of its directors went off to make Atomic Blonde, an instant-classic action movie in its own right if only for that incredible single-take apartment-building fight. John Wick spawned imitators. But more to the point, it proved that an American studio B-movie could be truly great, that it could compete with anything coming out of South Korea or Thailand or Indonesia. It proved that we don’t have to settle for bullshit. It raised the stakes. People keep asking if American action movies are back, and I hadn’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinking they’re back.
Other notable 2014 action movies: Another Hollywood movie gets the runner-up slot here. Like John Wick, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a hyperviolent story that takes place in an unrecognizably heightened world. And like John Wick, it proved to be an unlikely franchise-starter. Matthew Vaughn’s Mark Millar comic book adaptation is somehow even sillier than John Wick, and it probably relies too much on its gimmickry and winking Bond parodies, but its scene of Colin Firth unleashing absolute hell in a Southern church remains an all-time great action-cinema moment.
Even without John Wick, Hollywood had a pretty good action movie year. With Edge Of Tomorrow, Doug Liman and Tom Cruise made a high-concept alien-invasion movie that turned out to be a whole lot of fun. The Equalizer didn’t do itself any favors by casting Denzel Washington as a cold-blooded killer of Russian gangsters in the same year as John Wick, but it turned out to be an extremely watchable movie anyway. Non-Stop, with its sense of paranoia and great supporting characters and truly absurd ending, might be my favorite of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken movies. Sabotage, a grimy corrupt-cop movie full of good actors slumming and nasty double-crosses, is definitely my favorite of the post-political-career Schwarzenegger movies.
The year gave us a couple of good straight-to-DVD movies, with Michael Jai White going to Brazil to get revenge against the Yakuza in Falcon Rising and Gina Carano on a quest to get her husband back from Caribbean criminals in In The Blood. Dolph Lundgren starred alongside White and the great Thai star Tony Jaa in the organ-thief movie Skin Trade. And even the unnecessary remakes turned out to be better than they had to be. Brick Mansions, an English-language remake of the great French parkour movie District B13, had very little of the original’s anarchic spirit, but it gave us a chance to watch the late Paul Walker enjoying himself while jumping over things, so that was nice. And while the very idea of a PG-13 RoboCop is total fucking heresy, Elite Squad director Jose Padilha at least tried to engage with the original movie’s political undercurrents and to craft a couple of memorable action scenes. Expendables 3 sucked, but I at least enjoyed Wesley Snipes attempting to turn “ching-a-lang, ching-a-lang” into a catchphrase.
But other than John Wick, my favorite action movie of 2014 was another strange mood piece about an unstoppable killer. Adam Wingard’s The Guest drew on The Terminator and Halloween in equal measures, telling an eerie story about a mysterious super-soldier letting himself loose into the world and inflicting himself on the family of a fallen comrade. In the title role, the former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens is both charming and chillingly effective, and the movie itself is an absolutely glorious piece of nastiness. I can’t remember the last time I wanted a sequel as badly as I did after that.
Out in the rest of the world, directors from outside the Hollywood system kept pushing the genre forward. In Indonesia, Gareth Evans made something truly epic with The Raid 2. Discarding the elegant simplicity of the first movie, Evans instead told a sprawling and sometimes confusing story about Indonesian and Japanese crime families at war with each other in Jakarta, with the hapless killing-machine cop Rama trapped as an undercover between them. The movie’s story lost me a little, but its action scenes are just breathtaking, and a few of its supporting characters instantly entered the all-time pantheon.
In Chile, meanwhile, star Marko Zaror and director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza made The Redeemer into a gleefully violent story about a hitman on a quest of atonement. The movie’s worth watching just for one of its minor villains, a clueless American drug lord who really wants a nickname as cool as the ones that the Chileans have. And in Thailand, RZA showed up as the villain in The Protector 2, proving that he’s brave enough to let Tony Jaa kick him. The movie itself is way too CGI-heavy and nowhere near as good as the original, but you know you want to watch the RZA as an elephant-thieving international gangster who fights Tony Jaa.
South Korea gave us Kundo: The Age Of Rampant, a viscerally satisfying historical epic about a crew of bandit revolutionaries and A Hard Day, a rapidly escalating thriller about a detective doing his best to cover up a hit-and-run killing. And with No Tears For The Dead, The Man From Nowhere director Lee Jeong-beom returned with a predictably grisly story about a hitman accidentally killing a little kid and then falling in love with the kid’s mom. Even if you love South Korean action cinema’s combination of melodrama and absurd violence, that one might be a little much for you. In Hong Kong, Donnie Yen starred in Kung-Fu Killer, a movie about a serial killer who only targets kung-fu masters. It’s exactly as fun as it sounds. And old master Sammo Hung starred in Once Upon A Time In Shanghai, a remake of the 1972 Shaw Brothers classic Boxer From Shantung.
Also, while I tend to consider superhero movies and action movies as two separate, parallel genres, I have to take a moment for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the closest thing to a straight-up action movie that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet given us. The movie takes its fights seriously, casting Frank Grillo as Crossbones and MMA legend Georges St-Pierre as Batroc. Its elevator fight belongs on the list of all-time great movie elevator fights, and it’s not easy to get on that list.
Next time: Mad Max: Fury Road rides eternal, shiny and chrome.