Tom Cruise, John Wick, and the New Hollywood Gunfight

By  · Published on October 19th, 2016

Practice makes perfect, at least as far as the action movie is concerned

At one point or another, every major movie site gets around to detailing the collapse of the modern action movie star. Gone are the bulked up action stars of the eighties who could sell a fight sequence just by looking the part of a demi-god. Gone too are the slow-motion gunfights and myriad of squibs that contemporized the gunfight. In an era where the studio is the star and special effects are limited only by the imagination of those coding them, there isn’t a lot of room for standouts and signature styles.

Only nobody told this to Tom Cruise. During Grantland’s week-long 2015 series of articles dedicated to Tom Cruise, Katie Baker dove deep into the different times Cruise has made a spectacle of preparing for an action movie. The actor has spent literal years of his life training with swords, honing his ability as a stunt driver, working with firearm instructors, and even learning to hold his breath for a pivotal sequence in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation. And while we may lavish no small amount of praise on Cruise for his evolution as an action star, his impact as an actor star is sometimes lost along the way. Cruise isn’t just an impressive action star in-and-of himself; he is also responsible for bringing the close range gunfight into the mainstream.

There are gunfights in movies, and there are close range gunfights in movies, but what Cruise and director Michael Mann delivered was something else entirely. It might be hyperbolic to say that only Tom Cruise could play the character of Vincent, but both actor and genre seemed to converge on a perfect moment with Collateral. While Cruise was honing his reputation as an actor willing to go great lengths to be believable onscreen, action movies were also searching for ways to differentiate themselves from the CGI spectacles that emerged at the beginning of the century. Anyone could cobble together a believable action sequence using digital backdrops and computer models, but to truly differentiate yourself from the Spider-Man and xXx movies of the world, Mann and his team brought the entirety of the action into a single shot. A new concept of action – and an actor of singular dedication to his craft – combined to set a new standard for the cinematic gunfight.

The alleyway sequence in Collateral is enough to turn even seasoned weapons experts into glowing fanboys. Since Michael Mann emphasizes short bursts of violence over prolonged set pieces in his film, the entire gunfight takes place without the benefit of a moving camera to downplay the mistakes. Cruise’s character draws from the hip, puts the first assailant down, and executes the second with a Mozambique Drill before relaxing his stance. If Mann had elected to do this through a series of reaction shots – Cruise shoots and we cut away to each thug falling to the ground – the result would be a fairly standard gunfight from a fairly standard action movie. By keeping everything in the same static frame, however, Mann and Cruise bring physicality back into the equation. Cruise doesn’t need to spin, flip, or kick to demonstrate his mastery of the form. His skill with a handgun is the American equivalent of kung fu.

Taken as a whole, this dedication to Cruise’s skill speaks to the technique of the character, the countless hours of training that make a complicated piece of choreography look almost calm on the screen. Technique also sells the realism of the moment. Tom Cruise drawing his gun and firing five aimed shots in less than two seconds impresses because there is very little artifice to it; Cruise needed to be able to do those things, and do them in an approximation of real-time, to provide the finished shot for the film. This also forms the connective tissues between the one-shot gunfight and the proliferation of “old man” action movies on the market. Men like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington have joined the ranks of the new-age action stars by emphasizing the same degree of physical competency. It even becomes a key plot point: at an age where these characters should be beaten down by younger and stronger foes, it is years of practice and muscle memory that allows them to win more often than not.

And if Cruise started the trend of unbroken violence at close range, Keanu Reeves added an exclamation point in 2014’s John Wick. The gunfight at the club is a natural extension of what Cruise demonstrates in Collateral: steady footage at close range allows the action to focus on the technique – the countless hours of firearm training – that Reeves went through to play his character. Videos of Reeves training with firearms become major points of public interest; the delineation of character and actor becomes part of a new language of action stars for this decade and beyond. The character of John Wick should be able to bob and weave his way through a night club with only a single pistol to protect him, but nobody said that Keanu Reeves needed to be able to execute the same routine. Because Reeves can, we admire John Wick all the more.

Like most genres, the action film is constantly evolving and adapting what works for its own uses. With Reeves and Cruise showing no signs of slowing down even in their fifties, this new naturalized form of movie violence promises only to increase in the years to come. When the right edit can make any actor look like an action star, the truly great ones can stand out by sweeping away the action movie crutches and showing their skills in real-time. Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves have shown a way for action stars to be as relevant as ever, and for gunfights to still impress an audience that thought they’d seen it all. And all you need to do to follow suit share the work ethic of two of the hardest-training actors of our generation.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)