Most big-budget action movies these days are just cartoons directed by bad animators. Somewhere between The Matrix and The Bourne Identity, the whole genre lost its brawl. You’ve seen one superhero defend his city from an airship armada, you’ve seen every superhero defend his city from an airship armada.
Then there’s John Wick. Simple story, not-so-simple thrills. The story: Someone kills an assassin’s dog, and the assassin (Keanu Reeves) wants vengeance. The thrills: The movie constructs action scenes with patience and delicacy, filming in steady shots that track the careful choreography of Reeves’ punch-shoot rampages. John Wick was directed by a stuntman, and the movie ripples with the straightforward pleasure of watching bodies move on screen the way bodies used to move before greenscreen turned every movie into a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reboot.
They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Except, suddenly, they do. John Wick (in theaters now) is the latest entry in a genre mini-renaissance—let’s call it New Action: ultraviolent, often R-rated, with minimum backstory and maximum body count. 2012’s The Raid: Redemption sent a squad of supercops (who all know martial arts) into a building filled with supercriminals (who all know martial arts). The same year brought Dredd, which took its Die Hard-trapped-in-a-building plot and dressed it up with garish neon scuzz, like Blade Runner‘s punk-rock little brother.
These things used to be called B movies, but they’re now drawing A-list talent. Steven Soderbergh’s in the club: His underrated Haywire is what happens when one of our most experimental auteurs decides to experiment with punching Michael Fassbender in the face. And Liam Neeson has practically become his own New Action subgenre. Taken is John Wick in Paris; Non-Stop should’ve been The Raid on a plane.
It’s possible to call these movies throwbacks, except they’re throwing back to multiple eras at once. There’s a bit of the ground-level grit of ’70s action cinema: the bloody vengeance of Death Wish, the screeching wheels of The French Connection. But there’s also a strong influence from ’80s beefcake cinema, with its demi-fascist mass-murdering alpha males (see: the Fast & Furious franchise). Yet what makes New Action so revitalizing, and unexpected, is that it can minimize as well as it hyperbolizes. Witness the opening scene of contempo-hipster classic Drive, a car chase shot entirely from the inside of Ryan Gosling’s getaway vehicle.
Cards on the table: I love all these movies. I think they can save cinema. Hollywood’s wannabe saviors have been preaching a Big Spectacle gospel for years now. James Cameron and 3-D and Avatar; Peter Jackson and high frame rates and The Hobbit. All impressive, but what’s been missing is the rush of the real.
If New Action is going to rescue movies, though, it’s going to have to strap on some brass knuckles and batter a few more rules. These movies come on strong, but they’re still playing it safe. The heroes never die, never make any real mistakes. There’s a faint whiff of the miserable modern franchise about them: John Wick never does anything bold enough to close the door on John Wick 2. That’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a shame. The best action movies leave it all on the playing field. The best movies don’t need to save the cool stuff for the sequel.