By Cameron Rasmusson
A funny thing happened with the release of “Deadpool” last year.
The relentlessly crude superhero action comedy, which scraped its way through a tortured production largely on the willpower of star Ryan Reynolds, somehow became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time without adjusting for inflation. Now, predictably, studios are showing renewed interest in financing big budget R-rated movies, most recently with last week’s release of the final Wolverine film, “Logan.”
Due in no small part to that R rating, “Logan” is the best comic book adaptation since Christopher Nolan crystallized the post-Bush era in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Yes, “Logan” excels because of its rich emotional world and the relationships that develop within it, not because of its buckets of blood and yards of lacerated flesh. But it’s also the rarity where its relentlessly grim tone, much of which would be lost in a sanitized PG-13 format, is flawlessly married to its themes and the inner life of its characters. It’s an achievement in writing and direction completely absent in tonal disaster zones like last year’s “Batman v. Superman.”
With “Logan” set to earn enough green to dwarf the Incredible Hulk, there’s little doubt that Hollywood, true to its reactive nature, will seek to replicate its success. The good news is that studios should have plenty of inspiration to draw upon. Over the past few years, a few imaginative directors have taken American action filmmaking in innovative—and sometimes utterly bonkers—directions.
In fact, there’s a movie right next door to your “Logan” screening that fits that description perfectly. “John Wick: Chapter Two,” the sequel to 2014’s surprise critical and commercial hit “John Wick,” is a bizarre little firecracker of a movie. An ode to the sublime stunt work, choreography and editing of 21st century Asian action cinema like “The Raid: Redemption,” “The Man From Nowhere” or “Ip Man,” the “John Wick” series’ set pieces play out in long, carefully rehearsed takes of graceful gun-fu shenanigans. At less than half the budget of “Logan,” “John Wick: Chapter Two” more than matches it for action thrills (and gruesome sensibility, as is evident in one already-famous scene involving a pencil), even as it fails to reach the nuanced character work of the “X-Men” picture.
Make no mistake, Keanu Reeves’ titular action hero doesn’t have much time for contemplation despite the compelling emotional core of the first “John Wick.” But then, that’s not really what the “Wick” movies are shooting for. They’re more urban fantasies than anything else, a feverish vision of an international crime society complete with its own governing organizations, currency and iron-clad honor codes. While the first “John Wick” was an effective, if workmanlike, revenge narrative, the second finds the hero on something of a spiritual journey—albeit one that involves shooting dozens of Italians in the head. The neon color palette, the deliberately paced editing and an extended second act set in Rome underscore this strange odyssey as Wick navigates an amoral world while gradually losing the mementos of his dead wife, the movie’s sole symbol of human decency.
“Logan” and “John Wick: Chapter Two” pursue very different goals for all their comparable action trappings, and both achieve their goals admirably. They’re two solid steps in the right direction following the unparalleled success of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Heralded by many critics as the best movie of 2015, “Mad Max” set the standard for the next decade of R-rated action. Director George Miller’s dogged insistence on practical effects, stunts and minimal CGI imbue it with a relentless, kinetic beauty that is still unmatched.
Happily, it appears that sequels to “Mad Max: Fury Road” are still on track. Likewise, a “John Wick: Chapter Three” appears inevitable. And that’s entirely discounting the many other promising action titles soon to be released, including a sequel to 2014’s flawed but fascinating “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” It’s still too early to say, but signs are hopeful that a 21st century Renaissance of American action filmmaking is at hand.