Some writers don’t like the idea of an action sequence into their movies, let alone the idea of a movie made by a string of fight scenes.
The idea behind this is that an action sequence has the power to somehow “stop” the progression of the story in favor of a few minutes of meaningless trills.
But is this true? Is an action sequence just a series of PUNCH, BANG, BOOM, CRASH that doesn’t affect the story at all?
No, at least in my opinion, it can be more than loud noises.
Let’s start by saying what an action sequence is, In the book Screenplay defines a sequence as:
“A series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning, middle, and end”– Syd Field, Screenplay
So in the specific case of an action movie, a sequence is basically a series of fight scenes where the protagonist has to use his physical skills to overcome an enemy and reach his goal.
There are generally 3 reasons why an action sequence is used in a movie:
- Highlight the protagonist’s progress: the hero has lost a fight before, but now he has a new trick to use (a new skill, a new object or a different plan) that will allow him to win.
- Wake up the audience: very often movies that are not centered around the action sprinkle a fist fight through the screenplay in order to “spice things up” and keep the audience engaged.
- Show off the main character’s impressive abilities: in every James Bond movie ever the titular character captivates the audience with his gadgets, marksmanship and fighting style.
So, is an action sequence important for the plot or not?
It’s pretty obvious that in the first case it’s a yes, because without it there would be no way to show the progress.
In the second case, it’s a no, because it’s just there to make some noise.
But in the third case, it’s complicated.
John Wick Part 2
At first glance, it might seem that the second installment of the John Wick saga is just a brainless mashup of violence and stereotypical tough guy talk. But it’s actually more than that.
In this movie, shootouts, hand to hand combat scenes, car chases, etc take up most of the runtime, but they are not there just to show that Keanu Reeves is still in perfect shape.
The theme, aka the message that the movie is trying to communicate, is expressed visually by comparing John’s first and second mission.
Killing Gianna D’Antonio
The first task that John has to complete is to kill Gianna D’Antonio, a mob boss whose power is envied by her brother.
Despite some initial reluctance, Wick realizes that completing the mission is the only way to free himself from the promise he made years ago to Santino and starts gearing up.
He gets everything he needs: new shiny weapons equipped with the latest technology, a new suit that will protect him from incoming bullets and the blueprint of the location where his target will be.
He manages to enter Gianna’s room without being noticed and without engaging in a fight, but his escape ends up being harder than expected. John is forced to use all his arsenal and barely gets out alive.
Killing Santino D’Antonio
Since Santino has placed a “contract” on John, the hitman is forced to fight his way out of danger with anything he can find. No shiny advanced weapons, no bulletproof suit, no plan. Just a rusty gun with 7 bullets and a pencil.
Also, he cannot exactly sneak up to his target because he has to defend himself from all the other hitmen that want to collect the 7 million dollars bounty on his head.
As I said before, the second mission is just a mirror of the first one: so instead of having the chance to gear up and be prepared for a hit that has been commissioned to him, this time John has to improvise in order to get his revenge.
What each action sequence says
The second part of the movie is filled with shots that highlight the difference between the two situations:
- First half: we see John’s back while he puts his shirt on
- Second half: as he grabs his shirt we notice that this time his back is full of bruises
- First half: the people who recognize him simply say hi
- Second half: he has to fight every acquaintance from his past
- First half: Gianna sees him through a reflection in the mirror of her room
- Second half: John uses the museum’s mirror display to hide his presence
Against all odds, John Wick manages to kill Santino despite his lack of gadgets, plans, and poor physical condition.
This is basically a subversion of the classic Bond movie. The main character doesn’t just show off his skills, kills the bad guy and waits for the audience to go: “Wow!”.
Here the main character is put into an increasingly dangerous and difficult situation where he will have to learn to adapt in order to survive.
In the end, any action sequence in this movie is there to support the theme: that no matter how the legendary hitman John Wick will manage to get his revenge on anyone who disturbs his peace.