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Article

Nominated for Nothing: 'John Wick'

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David Lee

Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The film: John Wick’s just a normal guy. He’s sad that his wife died, but he’s happy that his wife left him one final gift: An adorable dog named Daisy. The puppy brings light back to John’s melancholy existence, giving him something to live for…until a gang of Russian bro-thugs break into his house, steal his sweet car, and kill his sweet dog. Those gangsters are in trouble. Because John Wick wasn’t always such a normal guy. Put it this way: Before you kill a man’s dog, you should really double check and make sure that he didn’t used to be New York City’s top assassin.

Why it wasn’t nominated: The Academy has a history of underrating plenty of genres—science-fiction, fantasy, comedy, films that aren’t about white dudes—but there are plenty of counterexample years where those genres receive copious nominations and Best Picture trophies. By comparison, there is essentially no history of Academy recognition for straight-up action films beyond those set in the distant past (like Gladiator or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or a sci-fi future (Inception, District 9).

The most Oscar-y action film of the last ten years is probably The Bourne Ultimatum, which won Film Editing and the two Sound awards—but even Bourne came gilded with a trilogy’s worth of great reviews and the intrinsic class of geopolitical semi-realism. You could argue that Best Picture winners like The French Connection and No Country For Old Men are “action” films, but they’re draped in Academy-friendly Important Movie tropes: based on a true story or on a Cormac McCarthy novel. Neither movie features a scene where the lead character punches, kicks, shoots, and stabs his way through a nightclub set to a pumping techno soundtrack.

The lo-fi, high-gloss thrills of John Wick were never going to earn major nominations, although it’s a minor bummer that film’s technical proficience went unnoticed. In an era when the action genre has been hacked to pieces by directors both bad and good—a Christopher Nolan action scene might have even more cuts than a Michael Bay action scene—there’s a smooth throwback quality to Wick’s onscreen composition. And some credit has to go to writer Derek Kolstad, who uses a straightforward revenge narrative to quietly worldbuild a whole underground Manhattan society of assassins, with a code of conduct that simultaneously recalls French New Wave crime films and old-school Yakuza epics.

Coincidentally, the Academy was also too lame to notice French New Wave crime films or old-school Yakuza epics.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: John Wick has already accrued a significant cult following, hitting a unique Venn Diagram demographic. On one side, there are film snobs angry at what digital effects and the PG-13 rating have done to action movies. On the other are people who enjoy watching Keanu Reeves kill people. Co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are working on a sequel, and it’s looking like they may work with your best friend Chris Pratt on Cowboy Ninja Viking as well—which could mean they’re cusping on blockbuster success.

In that sense, John Wick already feels two steps away from the action canon. So it’s important to focus on how, more than anything, the film is an example of good, solid fundamentals. The insanely ovequalified actors surrounding Reeves deliver performances filled with varying degrees of humor and menace. The filmmakers have a keen understanding of tone—there’s a wry, subdued humor in the film’s non-action scenes. In an era when most action epics overload on exposition, John Wick frontloads 90 percent of the plot in the opening minutes: Dead wife, dead dog, vengeance.

John Wick is one of the leaders of a new wave of contemporary action films that strip away the genre’s post-2000 narrative excess while overdosing on kill-count choreography. Lots of movies in the last few decades have been accused of being “like a video game,” but John Wick makes that feel like a virtue. Parts of the film really do suggest what would would happen if Jean-Pierre Melville or Point Blank-era John Boorman made a direct adaptation of Final Fight—complete with level bosses!

Above all, John Wick feels like a uniquely refined mix of very different influences—all held together by Reeves’ lead performance, which mixes the star’s Matrix-y blankness with just a touch of his Bill and Ted-era silliness. For much of John Wick, Reeves is a silent killer—which only makes it feel all the more potent when he goes Full Keanu, announcing to the world, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!”

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