Action flick, John Wick, unexpectedly knocks its tongue-in-cheek premise miles out of the park. With a composition style wielded some place between a pulpy graphic novel and a slickly brutish 70’s action fest, there’s plenty of multifaceted character in the visual design to ensure that Wick-heads keep returning time after time. Every scene, in the hands of someone less dedicated, might’ve felt too slapstick or idling, but, thankfully, John Wick’s comprehensive scope of contained atmosphere lends massive support to the suspension of disbelief (and investment) I was willing to permit it.
And so, to put one scene under the spotlight, let’s discuss the Red Circle club scene.
As the chase’s intensity grows, the scene’s aesthetic journeys across specific action fight-scene territories. Not only does John, in pursuit of Iosef, battle through his protection with a range of changing tactics, he moves through the different areas which act like bottles of vibrant tones and violent climates.
Like a true assassin, Wick stabs into the background, his priority victim remains unaware of the debris Wick litters around him. Showered in neon light, Wick cannot hide in the shadows, he becomes a flicker of violence, a hurried burst of close quarters assault. This room initiates pressure and pushes the efficiency of Wick into open light, he hides outside the camera’s frame and focus. He punches Victor, his victim, from outside the frame and then proceeds to drown him in water. Drenched in neon blue, as blots of blood red candles harshen the intensity, Wick gets what he needs by way of grizzly ends.
Then, cut to Dario Argento levels of red, the Jacuzzi area – shadows hide in piercing blood-light. Here the intensity of the tones are reversed, blues serve as undercurrents while reds dominate the palate. And then it’s back to blue when the water returns. Wick’s eyes surveil the room for Iosef, plotting his method of attack. This room grants him more freedom to sneak around, at the cost of more bodyguards to kill. The music is essential: soft and melancholy, like a Jacuzzi room might be, funky yet chilled, the vibe touches perfectly on all the sensations of anticipation, it’s predatory. Music and colour compliment the strength of Wick’s icy enigmatism, unpredictability looms above his precision. Suddenly, silhouettes of corpses in mid drop smear blood down the blue tint glass wall. He’s systematically chipping away at the target. The room’s music serves an in-world function, to cover the noise of his murders – his easiest chance at remaining undetected is to use a knife. Once again, the atmosphere of the room serves audience engagement by redirecting the character’s tactics, repeatedly manoeuvring into a fresher style.
To go slightly into over analysis territory, this shot (above), which starts immediately after it’s set up, supposes some symbolism towards Wick being the devil with the neon light circling out his head like horns (or perhaps it’s a halo, or possibly both – a ‘Satan’s Halo’?). I’d lean towards the speculation being true since it appears in a specific set-up that aligns almost too perfectly to be coincidence. Furthermore, the imagery appears once more later on, reaffirming the likeliness (below). Born of forethought or not, I still appreciate the symbolic presence.
The scene then plays out openly. Surprised by a guard, and after Wick attempted to handle the situation discretely, the fight crashes into the main area where Wick is suddenly exposed. Guns are now permitted in this area, and with it the sense of violent progression grows. At this point you’ll have noticed that the arrangement of scenes aren’t at all lazy, they’re constructed to manipulate and traverse the gradient of tension by testing the character in consecutive arenas – like the difficulty curve of a video-game, without the choice or separation. John Wick, as a film, manages to sell you its staging by pursuing flow and cohesion.
And then the mayhem kicks into action, the nightclub area, where a silencer’s shots whisper muffled noises under the thud of every beat. Iosef runs frantic through the crowd while Wick maintains composure through the music’s deafening trance. Strobe lighting and winding music creates an atmosphere of overwhelming intensity, we’re at the final push. These varying atmospheres serve to make the film feel bigger, more epic – there’s no rush to get through the scene and race to the payoff. By the end, Wick deserves his shot with Iosef, which sadly goes undelivered. You’re convinced to root on Wick’s side by witnessing the sheer power of will he inhabits. His persistence warrants his payoff.
After a brief tonal cleanse, the boss fight occurs and video game parallel goes full blast, it’s a common pattern throughout John Wick – although admittedly formulaic, it is earned, and while that isn’t a perfect justification, my defence is upheld by how it remains satisfying when every plot point builds to a logical conclusion and then proceeds to pay off magnificently. The compromise is deemed understandable – they have to hit particular scripted beats if they’re dedicated to perfecting the execution of that said beat. While unideal, we do not live in a perfect world.
Knowing itself, self referentially, puts John Wick several tiers above the recent wasteland of unmoulded lacklustre action. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s seamless approach to narrative mechanisms are to be admired considerably. I would highly recommend checking out John Wick, there’s more great chunks of powerhouse action where this came from.