Fight Scene Breakdown: 2017 was “The Year of the Wick”

Or maybe “The Wickening”. I’ll workshop it.

2017 was an awesome year for action in TV and movies. I wanted to take a look at what (in my opinion, he said with a giant grain of salt) were some of the best action sequences or fight scenes to come out of TV and film in the last year, and even look a little bit at why these scenes stood out, what worked, and maybe what didn’t – unfortunately I got halfway through the article before I realized that this is, in fact, the year of The Wickening (ok now it stays, I like it).

I can’t touch anywhere in the last decade of action film without mentioning the John Wick franchise. While we saw John Wick 2 hit theaters in 2017, it’s undeniable that the franchise’s first entry drastically affected the way audiences expect to see firearms and modern hyper-realism portrayed on the screen. Take a look at my favorite scene from John Wick 2, the shootout scene in the museum as Keanu Reeves sneaks into a swanky gala.

Western art history meets the classic Kurosawa “Samurai Silhouette” look – also, classic nudes.

One of the reasons I love this scene so much actually has very little to do with the action. Yes, the ridiculous disarms and semi-gratuitous “kneecap, kneecap, center mass, center mass, neck, head” firing pattern are wonderful. Stupendous even. I enjoyed each of them. However, there’s a lot of art going on in the composition of this sequence. Cutting back and forth to our “villain” (good and evil being perspective are exemplified by these films) as he walks away helps us build tension and understand the pressure. He starts off very cool and collected, and by the last scenes we see of him, he’s asking more of his guards to stay with him, while we hear gunshots in the background and he hurriedly presses through what looks like an early-modern impressionist gallery.

There’s even something to be said about the location choices. Because we’re working in disjointed time, surely the two leads could have been placed anywhere in the museum for their respective shots – we can see Wick is consistently presented (like in the above image) against physical stature and deified-icons, while his target is put against more panicked and colored pieces. The white walls are also a nice piece to display the blood effects and juxtapose Wick’s entry nicely into a new area.

Probably one of the reasons this REALLY works though is the camera angles. They use a lot of wide angles to show what ELSE is in the room with Wick. A complaint a lot of people have in action cinema is how long it might take for the hero to do this really cool “pull to inside guard and roll to mount then disarm and shoot them” thing, but by showing us that they’re in an empty room and THEN revealing the next two henchmen coming around a corner, through a door, etc? We understand the pacing of the film from the lead character’s perspective, and we have enough sensory data (even if it’s subconscious) that the scene makes sense. It isn’t realistic – these scenes aren’t realistic at all, but they are loaded with realism.

Firearms jam and run out of ammunition, people panic and get scared, a single bullet kills a person – we’re not totally off the rails into 80’s Segal triple-roundhouse-through-machine-gun-fire nonsense. That’s why I love the term “hyper-realism” – they took a scene/scenario, figured out the most realistic possible way it would go down, and then cranked that up to eleven in details. What John Wick is DOING isn’t superhuman, but the fact that it all works successfully is – this lets our hero do surprisingly unrealistic things, but we’re still genuinely concerned that any of those single bullets could kill HIM instead.

Speaking of John Wick – its influence could be seen in another Hollywood assassin flick – Atomic Blonde. I liked this movie a lot – but I didn’t love it. It dragged quite a bit through the center, and I found many of the characters to be rather uncompelling, but it did some things absolutely stellar.

First, it’s important to understand the strides that have been made for Charlize Theron to enter into a role as a Cold War-era spy, who is BEYOND badass, and be taken universally seriously in the part. They at no time Xena-fy her, and they let her character progress and playout to be just as much of a badass as her y-chromosome carrying counterparts. Secondly, THIS STAIRWELL FIGHT.

So many stair falls. So, so many stair falls. Theron and her team are champs – I really don’t want to see the shot list from this day, and count the number of times they did it. Ow.

So, if you haven’t seen the film – Theron’s character is tasked with protecting her informant (who we see in the opening scene here). I love this scene because it’s presented as a single take – it continues longer than this clip, and actually goes into an apartment, and through more of the building, but this was the best preview I could find).

This clip does something I normally hate – it goes on forever. BUT. It also does something really important. It tells a story.

Theron’s struggle against these people is indicative of the entire film – the stairs are a metaphor, the climb is a metaphor, the elevator is a metaphor – it’s all choices. Nothing in this scene was done by accident.

Now I do say – it’s “presented” as a single take, because it looks to me like there are some slick cut-ins (for example, check out the fall down the stairs and look right around 1:24 – I’m pretty sure they snuck a double in while the camera was away, who took the stair fall and then used that tiny bit of a whip pan to get Theron back there for the face reaction – it’s extremely well done). The point isn’t necessarily the technical accomplishment of what’s going on here – but it’s ultimately the storytelling choice. To spend 5-7 minutes on an action sequence, without much dialogue, and with absolutely no music, and present it as a single take, is telling of the director’s intentions. This story became about her, and the goal was for the audience to experience it from her perspective in its entirety. It’s ugly, and gets sloppy and mean in the next phrase (yes, more) but it absolutely creates a level of experiential empathy for the character that couldn’t have been achieved with quick cuts or character moments from OTHER characters.

The other achievement? We have no idea where her informant is or how he’s doing – because she doesn’t either. She’s running on hope and faith and steely resolve, which I think is the most suspenseful thing about the fight. You start to realize she cares more about keeping him safe than she does herself, and at some point, during the watch, I realized I felt the same way. I was less concerned about her well being (because she kept THROWING HERSELF AT THESE PEOPLE) and more concerned about the important guy the director and editor just refused to show me! That’s great cutting and great direction, in my opinion – empathy and story drive.

Ok – if you’re still not convinced the John Wick style has infected choreography everywhere, take a look at this piece from the most recent entry in the animated Resident Evil films, Resident Evil: Vendetta – totally ridiculous take on things, but probably one of the more fun animated pieces of choreography I’ve ever seen (seriously, he John Wicks a bunch of zombies; also seriously, John Wick-ing is a great verb add for 2018).

The tight-body tactical style we’ve seen Keanu Reeves do over and over in the JW movies – “hug your gun, or else it will be somebody else’s gun”.

Actually, I love this scene, maybe a little bit from a “guilty pleasure” place, but I’m convinced there’s no such thing and I refuse to feel guilty for enjoying the occasional tactical zombie body slam.

One of the reasons this whole scene even begins to work is the mindless and close-range nature of zombies. Their quantity is what’s scary, so the whole game the leads are playing from an in-world perspective is “can I keep from being outnumbered”, while the choreographer’s job is “can I keep them from being outnumbered in somewhat realistic but creative and interesting ways”. Mission accomplished if a tad ridiculous.

What’s going on that makes this scene fun? Again, nothing about it is PURELY realistic, but it is dressed and seasoned with JUST enough realism to bring you into the moment and keep you there. I’m by no means a firearms expert, though – how can I associate realism or non-realism to any of these things? Audience perspective.

I watched John Wick, and I watched the behind the scenes. I’ve fired plenty of guns, but I’ve certainly never taken more than a day or two’s worth of workshops in tactical maneuvering and shooting under pressure. What John Wick did was come out in the open and say “I’m realistic but still showy and entertaining, and realistic things will look like me if they’re still entertaining and fun!”

The JW franchise has done for guns and modern fight scenes what some weird combination of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Matrix did for the American audience perception of kung fu, or what Jackie Chan did for the perception of comedy action sequences – it redefined the expectation which has forced the genre in a direction, for better or worse. Surely there are people who don’t like the John Wick style, but I haven’t met them. How many films have utilized the 360-rotation since the Matrix? John Wick is having that effect on firearms in film.

It’s not what every story calls for, and surely it will get overdone and played out in all the wrong ways, but it’s always interesting to watch an artistic paradigm shift in real time, and be there for some of the best stuff so far.