This last decade was rife with action flicks, mostly saturated by Marvel films (which I discuss in a previous article), but the seemingly most prolific of the non franchise films was John Wick and it's sequels. The action vehicle trilogy of films we got from the year 2014-2019 did not miss a beat per film, with a non-stop pace throughout each one earned largely by Keanu Reeves and his phenomenal performance. I think audiences were surprised by his pretty big comeback to the action film genre, which would reboot his popularity across multiple releases. Reeves had very few releases (let's pretend 47 Ronin didn't happen) in the prior ten years, with A Scanner Darkly standing out as a sci-fi mind warpping experience, and The Lake House in another oddly sci-fi trip involving a time traveling romance. Both these films would benefit from their earnest performances given by Reeves, but would not stand out financially as successful or even as memorable as some of his previous work. I don't think I was alone in missing the good ole-fashioned star rocking a duster and kicking ass as Neo in The Matrix. Chad Stahelski would end up having that same sentiment.
In 2014 the box office was rocked with the release of Chad Stahelski's original John Wick which starred Keanu Reeves as a heart-broken widower, who's kicked while he's down (even literally) as his final gift from his late wife, a puppy, is killed. What turns into a classic revenge film starts cute, with warm filtered shots of his home, his car and his new friendship with his pet. As we learn to love Mr. Wick, we start by seeing him as a regular man. He is a softie suffering from loss, and he's humble and polite to those around him. He's just learning to love this dog, when a spoiled Russian gangster takes that away from him. Cue montage! John Wick turns out to be an ex-assassin working within a large collective universe of assassins with their own codes and rules. He vows revenge, and starts by digging up his arsenal. His arsenal being: a s**tload of guns. What transpires from the beginning of his hunt, to the bloody conclusion of his revenge mission, is an old-school shoot-em-up, with fantastic set-pieces and enough action to make John Woo blush. We are in awe of the return of Reeves, who even doles out the following meta-line: "People keep asking if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer. But now, yeah, I'm thinkin' I'm back!" It's a lot of fun, a lot of violence, and, in question, a lot of gun-frenzy.
Where John Wick might lose critics and simultaneously draw in bigger crowd number is it's unabashed love for guns. Mr. Wick is not just an assassin he's a shooter and he digs up a collection of firearms before his first onslaught. It isn't just the fact that he's attached to his firearms in his fight for revenge, but the film also realistically presents the use of his weapons based on the variety of the guns in the film. He shoots through a crowd of people in a club with various handguns, reloading and swapping them out per every other kill, in a stylistic and almost seamless choreography. He assassinates a few people in a scene with an extremely long-range sniper rifle. He shoots up a parking lot of gangsters with a heavy-duty shotgun. We've got an expo's amount of firearms and magazines at play here. So what makes John Wick so trigger-happy? Well it could be part and parcel to the fact that Keanu Reeves is actually somewhat of a gun-nut. He's gone on the record to say in interview:
“You mean should citizens be able to have a weapon? Yeah, why not? I am not fundamentally against citizens having access to a weapon, but I think that it has complications, the use of it. It’s probably not the wisest thing. Personally, I don’t own a weapon.” - Independent.co.uk
That aspect does make John Wick work so well, because this 56 year old actor is really well equipped with firearms, and has multiple both behind-the-scenes footage and on the range videos of his skills with guns. It's certainly no surprise given his past with The Matrix films, also gun heavy and glorified. Why is this problematic? Well there's a line between gun-use in movies and glorification and its easy to see this trilogy as a glorification of shooting and weaponry. There's no real moral to the idea of the Second Amendment or whether a citizen should own a gun. We just hold witness to the story of a man unhinged with access to an arsenal of weapons as he blows away baddies in all its R-Rated glory. What's tough to ignore is the way the film glorifies its gun use, throughout the sequels as well, with the necessity and focus of the action and choreography coming from the weapons of choice. Granted there's some cool sequences of driving (and even a horseback chase scene). But the film would not be the same without guns.
Let's also talk about some of the films that feature shooting within the PG-13 genre. Are we supposed to ignore in the Marvel Universe that the Black Widow or Falcon don't operate with powers outside of the use of pistols? We aren't seeing any blood spilled or gore like what is featured in John Wick but we are seeing a body-count and not just baddies being knocked unconscious either. Kids of all ages can appreciate heroes like Spiderman and Black Panther but will they draw the line at Falcon, who's toys are still easily accessible? I'm not implying the existence of action figures in the Marvel canon that hold mini guns in their hands, but the movies don't shy away from shooting sequences either. Are these action sequences as cool as Cap fighting Iron Man fist-to-fist? In short: yes. I love the films and there tight action sequences but have to wonder their impact on the younger audiences as well. While I won't make the violence in media conversation some of society is numb with, it's a little bit of a grey area with gun violence in PG-13 movies. Can we enjoy the moments of shooting as much as the rest of the action, even though no (on-screen) blood is spilled.
If anything stylizing the shooting is more problematic than the films of harder ratings that embrace the violence. Just as far as my opinion is concerned, I'm a big fan of the John Wick series, but will never own or pick up a firearm. Hell, I think it's cool to see Reeves pick up a weapon that he may prefer per kill, and the variety of the kills is fun to watch. We bear witness to a lot of shooting, and its part of what makes it such a ride. The question is should I feel guilty for enjoying shoot-em-ups in the realm or same field as Wick when gun violence is such an issue today in the U.S.? I'm not sure how to answer that. I'm strictly against the "video-games make kids violent" argument and yet have to wonder how impressionable movies in this nature come across. I don't think every movie should hold the weight of murder or violence in the same sense that it would in real life. But we are talking a large body-count in some films with a lot of real world weaponry.
It would be a different case in the sense of how we glorify killing and violence in slasher films, because truth is we do! But does anyone who watches a Jason flick feel the need to pick up a machete? Like I said I don't want to imply that the horror films Friday the 13th or Halloween inspire violence, but it is a lot harder to see the moments of murder via knife or clever mechanism as a glorification of their use. Violence in horror in general is more clever than anything you would see in a shoot-em-up, even the Saw films which are extremely controversial, rely on mechanisms and traps to fulfill their bloody climaxes. I don't feel guilty watching people saw their own legs off (dark I know) but I feel a little troubled watching an entire shoot-out in a bar. It's a fine line.
I conclude with the feeling of slight hypocrisy, I don't want to support the NRA or the Second Amendment but feel like Keanu Reeves, as humble and wholesome as he is handsome, maybe leans a little farther to the right in that department. Is there a place for shoot-em-ups for people like me? Yes but it's tricky to defend shooting in a genre for younger audiences. Gun violence in general is a heavy and very real problem today, and film's like John Wick need to be taken as fictional as they are. I don't believe folks are coming out of this film to buy guns, but I hope its clear to most that there's a level of personal distance between our ideologies and what happens on screen. I think John Wick: Chapter 2 is a modern day masterpiece. Hell, I think it's fun and violent in all the best ways. But still I'm gonna take it for what it is, an action-vehicle with an old-school cool actor to boot. That's enough for me.