A comment by my roommate kicked off this line of thought. Are the fight scenes in John Wick really any different than those in The Matrix?
Yes, totally different. Thanks for asking though, since I haven’t revisited The Matrix in a long time. Keanu Reeves has starred in some of my favorite movies, and obviously The Matrix is still amazing even after a decade or so since its release. John Wick is also a fantastic action movie, but a close watching of both shows dramatically different aesthetics when it comes to fighting.
Let’s take a look at probably the best fight scene in the entire Matrix trilogy: Neo vs Agent Smith in the Subway.
Now bear in mind I’m not an expert, I’ve just watched a lot of action movies.
If you watch this fight scene what’s immediately apparent is the massive influence from kung-fu movies. Do you see that dust rising up off Neo when he stands up and defiantly postures? Do you also noticed the sped up camera work? Also the emphasis on upright striking? Both Neo and Agent Smith favor strikes over grapples and rarely, if ever, go to grappling and ground fighting. There are some throws, but most of the throws are superhuman strength based pick-up-and-toss style attacks. It’s definitely an incredible fight and I’ve never gotten tired of watching it.
Now, let’s watch one of the best fight scenes in John Wick, the Club Scene:
As you watch this scene you might notice that John Wick doesn’t fight like your typical action hero. The modern action hero fights in a way reminiscent of the Bourne movies with a little Dark Knight thrown into the mix. What usually sticks in my mind is the emphasis on striking, and fast combinations that alter attack directions rapidly, as well as deflecting other attacks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what we see in John Wick. There’s several things striking about the fighting style in the Club Scene. One, John Wick uses his gun as a close combat weapon. Not as the exception, but as the rule. He gets in close to people and shoots them. Typically in action movies it’s one or the other, the hero either punches or he shoots, but rarely does he combine them as thoroughly as John Wick does. Two, John Wick, while he does strike, heavily favors a more judo/jiu-jitsu approach to combat. On more than one occasion he gets in very close to his opponents and goes with them to the ground, where he grapples with them. This is significantly different than many action movies. He also throws, in a judo style, far more heavily than any other action hero I can think of. And, while he is good at hand-to-hand combat, it’s actually noticeably harder for him to defeat opponents when he’s disarmed. Whether this is a nod to realism or an in-universe weakness on John Wick’s part, it’s unclear.
Another more subtle element of John Wick’s fighting style, say in contrast to Neo, is his methodical brutality. John Wick kills his opponents. Neo will enter a lobby and gun down enemies. John Wick pretty much executes every single person he encounters. This movie has the highest amount of explicit head shots I’ve ever seen in an action movie. The result does give John Wick a far more ruthless quality than most action heroes. Some goons might survive an encounter with Neo but no one survives an head on fight with John Wick.
I’m not saying one is necessarily better than the other, they’re just trying to do, and reference, different things and I enjoy them both.