What constitutes good editing is entirely subjective but there’s really two camps. The first – and the more modern approach — sees editing as something that provides faster pace for an audience that almost prides itself in being so distracted. It’s a stimulant that keeps the eyes up on the screen.
The second theory is that the lack of editing is the best direction. Of course, there is always a time and a place for both those theories and each have sub-categories, but for the most part, that’s where a film’s fingerprint is made. How often and why a film is cut is vital to the final product. It’s also partly what makes the sequel to the surprise hit John Wick such a bold success.
Leaving John Wick: Chapter 2, audiences are sure to feel exhilarated if not a bit overwhelmed after a non-stop action ride with Keanu Reeves as their stoic tour guide. It moves at breakneck speed, but director Chad Stahelski doesn’t do so by the same means most modern action helmers operate. Like the first installation, there’s a deliberate effort to make each shot last as long as possible. Most other actioners are focused on cutting on action, taking away from the spectacle.
Granted, this formula works by in large today. These rapid cuts make for an artificially intense product. Marvel does this incredibly well considering how much money it rolls in for Disney every year. Of course, the fanfare behind the comic books has more to do with its success than formal qualities of filmmaking. But most audiences leave the theater amazed by the quality of action.
Take a look at some of the sequences from Captain America: Civil War.
In the first scene in Nigeria, there’s a large portion of shots cut on action. For instance, Captain America’s entrance. He comes diving down and crashes into a soldier, shattering a truck’s window. It’s cut into three shots instead of one. The scene works in showing the events as they happened, and the story isn’t lost in the process, but one still has to wonder if it would have worked better as one shot.
That’s not to say it had to be one static wide shot to get all the action in. That’s what studios have veered from over the past two decades, especially with the success of the Bourne series which is largely credited with this rapid editing technique. The strange thing is, Bourne’s editing works whereas a majority of its inspired fall a bit flat. Paul Greengrass helped perfect the use of shaky-cam to blend with rapid cuts to inspire action.
Then there’s this style of action, long, uninterrupted scenes. Take this quintessential scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark for example.
Modern audiences probably don’t see it as all that thrilling (side note: That scene was actually directed by Michael D. Moore, not Steven Spielberg) since it’s composed of a bulk of wide shots. It has “less personality” or emotion to it compared to action like that in a Marvel film where each hit is interrupted by a close-up followed by a reaction shot. But Indiana Jones and the films of its era allowed the action to exist as one continuous scene or as long as possible, creating real drama as the audience feared for their protagonist’s immediate life with things playing out in real time.
John Wick lives somewhere in between Civil War and Raiders. It certainly has a higher edit count than Raiders but most definitely has few cuts per minute than a Marvel joint. There are moments that are cut on action simply because of the sheer volume of fights there are. It’s bound to happen. But it’s how the camera operates that allows Stahelski to extract the most out of the stunts.
Rather than taking a wide shot and cut to a close-up or a mid, Stahelski’s camera often does that all in one move guided by direct of photography Dan Lausten. Sometimes, it even pulls out and repeats the process. There are real stakes- a suspension of disbelief is at play. This is all done by practical measures. When some scenes like the “Reflections of the Soul” in the mirror maze seem impossible, creative measures like moving the walls instead of just the camera create to brilliant effect to heighten the suspense.
Not to mention, that scene is pure eye candy. That’s only proper since production company 87Eleven Action Design’s slogan is “Kicking ass never looked so good.”
This is the same company behind Safe (2012) and action sequences of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which admittedly has some great action). But this isn’t a discussion of either of those mostly mediocre films. The chapters of John Wick work not only because of pitch perfect choreography but because of the themes that lie beneath.
Speaking with writer Kyle Ward who was brought in to clean up Derek Kolstad’s script, Ward said if the first film was about revenge, this chapter is all about consequences. For every action, there’s an equal reaction. Scenes that Ward wrote in like the “Reflections of the Soul”, while maybe a bit too on the nose, are meant to show Wick’s greater contemplation of what his life has become.
In this secret world of hitmen he tried to escape in the last film, he’s learned there’s no escape from this underworld. He’s in a literal purgatory. Whatever made him join this criminal landscape has never been revealed, but he realizes there’s really no escape if he tries to break the number one code of honor. While this isn’t a commentary on the existence of free will, it is at least for Wick.
His life is now little more than running from assassins trying to kill this figurative god, Mr. Wick.
With the performances John Wick has had at the box office, studios would be wise to take another look at changing things up in their mainstream releases. While Marvel isn’t likely to change up its formula to emulate John Wick‘s production, it would be a wholly welcome surprise just as it would for any other action franchise that has fallen into an action rut.