Published May 09, 2019Promotional consideration provided by eOne.
With John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum just around the corner, we've decided to dedicate a month of coverage to our favourite contemporary action series. After all, three movies in, director Chad Stahelski has managed to increase the scope of the project without losing any of the grit that makes it feel so real.
In addition to all of its face-pummelling, bullet-blasting action, another thing that makes the John Wick franchise so great is that it's so damn classy. While action movies have always been (perhaps incorrectly) viewed as a form of lowbrow entertainment, Stahelski has made a point of injecting it with highbrow visual and audio cues.
"I love action movies, but I wanted to reach a different audience, and I wanted to show that action can be smart and pretty," Stahelski tells Exclaim! "So if I put references to [16h century painter Michelangelo Merisi da] Caravaggio in there, if I use [Antonio] Vivaldi classical music, if I do references to [Andrei] Tarkovsky, [Bernardo] Bertolucci, make Sergio Leone references in the music with Ennio Morricone, or put Latin phrases in graffiti on the walls, it's for guys like you to search out and research.
"John Wick is an amalgamation of Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Hong Kong cinema, Japanese anime, '70s hardcore Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson films."
With those few quotes, Stahelski has given us a glimpse into the aesthetic blueprint that makes John Wick movies just so damn cool. Before Parabellum hits theatres on May 17, let's dig into just a few of the film icons that have inspired the franchise.
One of the most striking images of the Parabellum trailer is the moment when John Wick rides a horse while fighting off baddies through a busy Manhattan street. While we can thank Mitski and Lil Nas X for the current cowboy zeitgeist, Stahelski was really looking back to beloved Italian director and spaghetti western icon Sergio Leone for this item. In the past, Stahelski has credited Leone's Clint Eastwood collaborations for plenty of John Wick's epic gun battles and general feel.
Lest you think Stahelski is not well-versed in the Criterion Collection, he also pays plenty of homage to revered Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa left behind a massive legacy (inspiring plenty of Stahelski's other influences, including Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci) and a massive body of work. Seven Samurai, perhaps Kurosawa's most beloved film, has been referenced multiple times by Stahelski, both in interviews and on the screen.
That Stahelski would namedrop Tarkovsky speaks to his love of film on a more cinematic level. The legendary Russian director, often credited as a progenitor of slow cinema alongside Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, was a master at contemplative world-building and jaw-dropping cinematography. His most famous works, including Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Stalker, may not be action-packed explosions of gun-fu, but they still share an aesthetic sensibility with the Wick franchise.
Stahelski and Bertolucci share common DNA in one Keanu Reeves, who starred in the latter's 1993 film Little Buddha. That said, they have plenty more in common as Bertolucci incorporated thoughtful lighting and stunning cinematography to make his work shine. Further, it's hard not to think of the High Table when watching the secret police do their work in Bertolucci's The Conformist.
Of course, it's hard not to watch Keanu Reeves cruise around in myriad vehicles and fire innumerable bullets without thinking of the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen. The late action movie star left behind a serious filmography with myriad directors, though his best work maintains a unified feel of suave, sleek action. Without Steve McQueen, there'd certainly be no John Wick.