John Wick is classic American action, including the cars
John Wick is a myth. He’s Baba Yaga, the Boogeyman. Or rather, he’s the one you send to kill the Boogeyman. There’s something supernatural about him. He survives getting shot, beaten, suffocated, hit by a car, stabbed, thrown off a balcony. He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. He’s Rasputin, an avenging angel, like the Old Testament God. It’s easy to forget that he’s just John when first introduced: a man mourning his wife and “sorting some stuff out,” who loves his dog and his everyman classic 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. John Wick may be a legendary hitman, but he’s still relatable.
As we eagerly anticipate John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, which hits theatres Friday, we look back at the 2014 film that started the revenge-seeking John Wick phenomenon.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch led long, illustrious careers as stuntmen and stunt directors before making their directorial debut with the Derek Kolstad-penned original. To become John Wick, Keanu Reeves trained for four months at stunt production dojo 87Eleven, learning Japanese and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, stunt driving, and gun-fu, which is exactly what it sounds like: a mix of martial arts and gunplay that originated with director John Woo. Reeves trained with stuntmen, SWAT, and Navy SEALs, five days a week, eight hours a day, always the first to arrive and the last to leave. The ultra-dedicated Reeves wanted to do most of his own stunts, even performing some of them when he was fevered and sick with the flu. In scenes where Wick takes on the Russian mob in a Dodge Charger and works through his grief by driving his Mustang crazily around an airport, Reeves did most of his own driving (although a professional stuntman performed the maneuver where he stops inches short of a dump truck).
During John’s ill-fated first meeting with crime boss Viggo Tarasov’s entitled son Iosef (Alfie Allen), Iosef wants to buy John’s Mustang. John declines, and Iosef retaliates by breaking into John’s house, beating him, killing his dog, and stealing his car. In doing so, he unwittingly unleashes Baba Yaga, transforming John into John Wick. The fate of John’s dog, a final gift from his wife, is the real tragedy that brings him out of retirement, but the loss of his beloved car fans the flames. John Wick’s ride is a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429, painted a silvery gray with black rally stripes. The filmmakers were given orders not to damage the two Mustang fastbacks used in the film, neither of which was a true a Boss 429. Its chin spoiler, interior, hood pins, and hood scoop indicate that it’s more likely a Mach 1 dressed up like a Boss 429, though it lacks Mach 1 graphics. Its steering wheel is from a Shelby Mustang, and no Boss 429 had a chin splitter and rear spoiler like Wick’s car.
Regardless of whether Wick’s car is a true Boss 429, it’s a real Mustang, a legendary movie car that’s been showcased in Gone in 60 Seconds (both versions), Drive, Bullitt, Grand Prix, Diamonds Are Forever, Thunderball, Point Break (driven by Reeves himself), even Misery. It’s the perfect car for John Wick, an old-school character who evokes Alain Delon in Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Lee Marvin in Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). The Boss 429 is classic animal, with a powerful, enormous engine originally intended for racing. (There is a hint of racing nostalgia in John Wick, as evidenced by a replica of a Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 in Aurelio’s shop.) Though the Boss 429 was rated at 375 horsepower, it is common folklore that it actually produced much more. It’s also a contender for the best-looking Mustang ever produced.
The Mustang isn’t the only beautiful car John Wick drives. When his Mustang is stolen, he picks up a new ride from chop-shop owner Aurelio (John Leguizamo): a 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6. The Chevelle’s screen time is tragically limited, but we catch a glimpse when John drives home from Aurelio’s and again for a few shining moments on his way to the Continental Hotel. When fellow professional (Adrianne Palicki) tries to kill Wick on the grounds of the Continental—thus breaking the rules—hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a 2011 Dodge Charger SRT as compensation: “A parting gift. From the management.” Despite being full of criminals and assassins, the Continental Hotel proves to be a place worth staying.
Each car’s appearance onscreen feels too brief, but we spend a little quality time with the Charger. When Viggo Tarasov (the late, great Michael Nyqvist) murders John’s only friend, Marcus (Willem Dafoe), John and his Dodge Charger come for Viggo and the henchmen who remain, including Viggo’s right-hand man Avi (Dean Winters). The Dodge Charger arrives, leaving a trail of tire smoke behind it, then Wick proceeds to destroy everyone and everything in his path for one final showdown at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. John plows into one of the henchmen, sending the man flying over his car. Wick aims his gun and fires through the roof as the man rolls, arguably the scene’s high point. Another man rolls over Wick’s hood, and John shoots him when he lands. He reverses his car into a third man, crushing him behind the open door of Viggo’s Chevy Tahoe (apparently the Russian mob’s ride of choice). John slides into a 90-degree turn, killing Avi by hitting him sideways with his bullet-riddled ride. This is when Viggo makes his last stand, ramming his Chevy into the Charger’s side. Wick crawls out of his shattered rear window to escape the car before Viggo pushes it off a sheer drop, where it meets an untimely end.
Since the filmmakers couldn’t afford a proper car chase, second-unit director and stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott pitched this scene, which beautifully marries a car chase with a gunfight. At times, it feels as if John is the bull, and Viggo and his men are flailing matadors. John weaponizing his car in close-quarter fighting is an ingenious, novel solution. Because John prefers an up-close-and-personal fight, the intimacy and intensity of car-fu ultimately feels better suited to his character than a big chase.
John Wick has no fat on it—every decision made in this film maximizes its brutal impact and emotional resonance. (Credit must be given to editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, who whittled this film down to its purest, most potent form.) Everything from Wick’s favored fighting style to his choice of cars tells us something about the man and the myth. When John and Aurelio sit down to discuss his stolen Mustang, Aurelio pours him a drink on the hood of a ’68 Charger. This nod to the old Charger before the new Charger’s debut feels like a metaphor for Wick himself: an updated throwback, a myth resurrected.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick is an homage to classic films, graphic novels, and pulp fiction imbued with fresh, frenetic vision. It resuscitated the American action movie. In an interview with GQ magazine, Stahelski explained what shaped their style: they had no choice. “We couldn’t afford all the fancy editing and fancy camerawork,” he said. “The long takes, the close-quarters gun stuff—yes, those were ideas we had. But we couldn’t afford not to do long takes. We had to do long takes because we only had one camera. The first guy who dies [in a fight scene] is also the last guy—he’s gotta get up, run behind the camera, and come back into the shot and get hit by Keanu [again].”
Necessity, imagination, and expertise produced a mode of action filmmaking that jettisons stale genre conventions, like quick cuts and overdone editing to conceal stuntmen, shaky cam, and the belief that bigger is better—John Wick’s minimal, visceral, classic style proves otherwise.