John Wick: Chapter 4 shot into cinemas last March and claimed the top spot at the worldwide box office. Due to its brilliant production design, expert cinematography, and kickass stunt choreography, it became the first film I’ve ever watched in the cinema twice.
About 2.5 hours into my second go, I rubbed my hands with glee and my heart started beating faster, pounding even. “Here we go”, I said to my friends. The ‘dragon’s breath’ set piece had arrived.
My smile widened as a broken-down John Wick struggled up an apartment staircase with the camera’s perspective shifting into an overhead tracking shot. A bird’s-eye view on the action.
I experienced an adrenaline rush as he started mercilessly mowing down enemies using shotgun ammunition that sets them on fire. It’s equal parts riveting, horrifying and visually striking.
“Brilliant,” I quietly uttered, chuckling every time there was impact.
The action sequences have been showered with praise by everyone who’s seen it, deservedly so. Unfortunately, action movies are routinely left out of awards consideration. One element in particular is guaranteed to receive nothing at the Oscars: the stunts.
The importance of stunt work
It baffles me that, throughout its 95-year-long tenure, the Academy Awards have never introduced a stunt category. One of the first uses of onscreen stunt doubles dates back to 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. It’s a crying shame something almost as old as cinema itself remains underserved by the industry.
For action franchises like John Wick, the sets, visuals, and sounds only serve to elevate the brutal, intricate, and inventive stunt work on display. Chapter 4’s ‘dragon’s breath’ sequence showcases clear artistry as Keanu Reeves takes on swarms of bad guys without it feeling repetitive. Stunt coordinators pull off the herculean task of having these sequences appear entertaining and convincing, without actually putting stunt performers in danger.
Icons of cinema like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and John Wayne, as well as more contemporary stars like Jackie Chan, Tom Cruise, and Keanu Reeves all owe part of their fame to talented stunt crews.
Stunts can become as iconic as the movies themselves. Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is seared into my brain. And I’ve never quite been the same after watching Michelle Yeoh ride a motorcycle onto a moving train in Police Story 3: Supercop.
How come the Academy has a blind spot?
Stunt coordinator Jack Gill has lobbied for a stunt category since 1991, but this proposal has repeatedly been rejected on grounds of there being an insufficient number of stunt people in the Academy.
That is laughable considering they’ve historically expanded their ranks whenever necessary, such as adding large numbers of people of color following the backlash for lacking diversity in 2016’s acting categories (#OscarsSoWhite).
Their exclusion is particularly embarrassing since the industry has become dominated by action movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has grossed over $28.7 billion. What are the MCU, James Bond, and The Fast and The Furious without elaborate, fantastical, and jaw-dropping stunts?
Even prestige pictures that are on the Academy’s radar (Gladiator, Django Unchained, and The Revenant) benefit greatly from their action sequences. When I think about Best Picture-winner Parasite, what immediately jumps to mind are the haunting yet hilarious living room skirmish and birthday massacre.
One could argue it’s hard for Academy members to determine the quality of stunt work or distinguish it from visual effects. However, the same can be said for any category. What does a hair stylist know about directing? What does a screenwriter know about production design? What do actors know about anything?
There are also concerns that introducing a stunt category would encourage people to perform more dangerous stunts. This is frankly ridiculous when you consider that Tom Cruise has been knocking on heaven’s door without the potential for Oscar gold.
The world’s shortest scientologist has flown F-16s, been on the outside of an airbus mid-flight, and recently drove a motorcycle off a cliff. He’s always exhibited a David Blaine-like desire to kill himself spectacularly.
The Academy also worries that the ceremony would become too long if they added another award. Yet they proposed a Best Popular Film category in 2018, a desperate attempt at attracting general audiences, which thankfully got axed.
The Oscars had 24 categories until merging Sound Mixing and Sound Editing in 2020. If anything, that means a spot has recently opened up! Unlike Best Popular Film, a stunt category would be a less patronizing way of engaging the mainstream.
A brighter future
After years of declining viewership and audience disillusionment, the Oscars finally seem to be on the turn. This year’s streamlined ceremony featured films people actually saw (Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick) and the ratings subsequently rose by 13%.
Fan favorite Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, which is chock-full of fantastic fight choreography, took home seven awards including Best Picture. The success of this absurdist multiverse dramedy poked a hole in the Academy’s snobbish reputation when it comes to popular genre films.
Honoring cinema’s forgotten heroes is the perfect opportunity for them to continue rebuilding their image. They wouldn’t even have to be the first considering the Screen Actors Guild has been handing out stunt awards since 2007.
The final hurdle seems to be the uncertainty about who would accept the award. IMDb lists 91 people working in John Wick: Chapter 4’s stunt department: stunt performers, doubles, choreographers, coordinators. Who gets it?
John Wick director Chad Stahelski told IGN “as far as I know, the talk has never happened. These are all good questions, but the conversation has to start. It would be great if we all sat at a table and figured it out. It’s a win-win for the Academy and [us].”
For audience members, it’s important to champion stunt performers. They deserve to be rewarded, not just in box office, but in recognition. If that somehow gets through to the Academy, maybe a year from now I’ll be able to see some pompous celebrity handing a golden statuette to John Wick: Chapter 4.