Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Non-Stop Action in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

It’s universally accepted that most sequels suffer compared to their originals, and for good reason. Sequels are made for profit, often green-lit before there’s a script, before there’s a story, before there’s any vision for what the film may be. I remember a few years ago when Kristin Wiig was bombarded with questions time and time again about a Bridesmaids sequel, and she just said no, that was it, there’s no more story. So there are some people who know when to stop, at the same time there are franchises they keep chugging along when there was only one valid idea in the first place.

And then there are those occasional sequels where it’s clear the directors have specific ideas how to take a character somewhere new, somewhere exciting. The Dark Knight proved how a sequel can improve on an original and expand the mythology surrounding its memorable characters. Before Sunset and Before Midnight show what sequels can be when they’re made with love and respect and with clear understanding of how the sequel format, showing the passage of time and how characters evolve, can bring great power to a narrative.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is not in the league of sequels like The Dark Knight and Before Sunset, but it is a rare second installment to outdo the original, not because the character gets any deeper (Keanu Reeves’ character has less personality in this one than in the first, if that can be believed) or because the universe of the original has been expanded in any significant way (although it does here to some extent). This sequel is a notch better than the first (which I also liked a lot) because it takes the main element we loved about the first one — endless visceral action scenes — and crank them up about two-hundred percent. This film has to be the most pleasantly draining and thrilling action experience since Mad Max: Fury Road.

For years I’ve always referred to a non-stop action movie as “this year’s Speed” because that 1994 action masterpiece was the first of its kind I’d ever experienced, a film that barely takes a breath between action for two awesome hours. And it’s fitting that the current model for that kind of intensity is another movie starring Keanu Reeves. Outside of the two John Wick movies, Reeves has been pretty quiet lately, popping up in the occasional weird indie but not getting a whole lot of lead roles in the last ten years. Director Chad Stahelski, who also directed the original, recognizes Reeves’ strengths and weaknesses as an actor and uses him to his full effect in these movies. Wick is vengeful, angry, emotionally closed off, and while watching this sequel, I couldn’t think of a better actor who could have been picked for this role. Reeves had a lot of charisma in films like Point Break and Speed, but now in his fifties there’s a worn-down, mysterious quality to his presence that fits the character perfectly.

And yet despite the fact that he doesn’t look like Dwayne Johnson, Reeves is still entirely believable as a man who could put down hundreds of people out to kill him, even when he’s shot in the stomach, even when he goes toe-to-toe with Common for one of the most insane extended fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. The film of course opens with a bloody action scene, but as soon as Wick’s character learns of the seven-million-dollar bounty put out on him, there really is nowhere to run for his character without someone trying to end him for good. The villain is a little stock here but solid, and I also loved the use of specific locations for the fight scenes, like a subway car and a mirror maze.

For fans of serious, high-octane action and thrills, you really can’t do a lot better than John Wick: Chapter 2, and better yet — there’s a finely interwoven reunion between Reeves and his Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne. Sure, the supporting characters aren’t that memorable, and once in awhile there are so many gunshots to the head that I would occasionally get numb to what was playing out on-screen. My main disappointment with the film is that some of the heart from the first installment — mostly regarding the loss of his dog and how it affected Wick — is somewhat lacking here, the action definitely taking center stage over any emotional substance. But writer Derek Kolstad and director Stahelski clearly set out to make something exciting, not playing nice to this character and even in the final scene taking him into the complete unknown. You’re taught not to expect much from an action sequel these days, but John Wick: Chapter 2 is an exception to the rule.

Watching Like a Writer: I’ve always been interested in narratives that have non-stop action. One of my recent thriller novels is essentially one long car chase, almost in real-time, and it’s been so unbelievably difficult to maintain the intensity of the action while also building character and making the story resonate. But I’m fascinated by the kind of narrative and when it works well, in both novels and in films, it can be truly spectacular.

Exercise! Pitch a story that would be filled with non-stop action from beginning to end. What would it be about? And where would it be located?

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