David Leitch exploded onto the directorial scene with JOHN WICK in 2014 and has since made a name for himself in action films left in its wake. Well, he exploded as an uncredited director; thanks to Directors Guild of America rules, he was listed as a producer and sole directorial credit was given to colleague Chad Stahelski. The pair have a history as stunt veterans stretching back to the ’90s. For example, both worked on The Matrix series with their future JOHN WICK star Keanu Reeves. They’ve also acted as second-unit directors and served in other capacities besides the guys in the line of fire, all before they shared a director’s chair. The stuntperson-to-director pipeline is an interesting one, probably deserved for the action genre since the people doing the most eye-popping things in those movies may have an eye for it behind the camera as well. Stahelski has so far stuck with the ever-expanding John Wick franchise, but Leitch pretty quickly diverged into other original ideas and established series. In the eight years since 2014, Leitch has directed five features. I’ve enjoyed all of them to variable extents, so I’ve ranked them below, excluding shorts DEADPOOL: NO GOOD DEAD (2017) and SNOWBRAWL (2019) that were more promo devices than even “full-fledged” short films.
#5 — FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019)
Let me get this on this record right out the gate: I’ve never seen a full Fast & Furious movie. The desire to do so is not really any stronger after watching franchise spin-off FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW. That being said, I was actually surprised that I did not immediately hate this. I think a big part of my hesitation to enjoy most any huge blockbuster movie these days is how they subsume their makers’ styles. It’s not just about how dumb they are, because I’m often in for campy fun, albeit not patronizing campy fun. HOBBS & SHAW does represent this dilemma. While I don’t think Leitch has developed some kind of obvious visual director trademark beyond fast, brutal action, it does feel the least in step with what he’s done in other movies. With HOBBS & SHAW, he stepped into a mode and characters that had been established years prior. Even still, while working within that, Leitch was able to pull together a more coherent action film than is often put out these days. What I mean is that I can follow the movements of the CG-fueled explosions and shattering glass, not that HOBBS & SHAW presents some kind of compelling narrative or strong characters. But The Rock and Jason Statham are adequate as bickering action buddies, although the routine runs a little thin over the movie’s lengthy runtime. There are plenty of moments in HOBBS & SHAW, for their sheer Looney Tunes logic audacity, that made me laugh out loud, and that counted a lot more for me than the regrettable plays for emotion or really witty one-liners.
#4 — DEADPOOL 2 (2018)
Still, the problem with HOBBS & SHAW is that it did feel like a lot of movies already out there. And indeed, while it provide slight enjoyment, it’s undeniable that it’s the weakest of Leitch’s movies so far. DEADPOOL 2 nearly takes the bottom spot for similar reasons. While it’s not like the first DEADPOOL was some kind of revolutionary comic book movie, it was a refreshing bit of crass humor that mostly understood the character amid the MCU-ification of the entire film industry. For all that potty-mouthed veneer of rebellion, though, the movie was pretty conventional, and DEADPOOL 2 worsened that feeling. Much of the movie felt like the ideas of the previous movie were already spent, although its inclusion of new characters interested at least this comic fan and it wasn’t without its chuckles. Otherwise, it did sport some good action choreography, but it wasn’t so remarkable so as to propel DEADPOOL 2 out of the franchise swamp.
#3 — ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)
I think I’ve a soured a bit on ATOMIC BLONDE in the years since I first saw it in theaters. Its Cold War espionage thriller plot, upon further review, is more strained than I remembered. Its “remember the ’80s aesthetic” trades on the red-and-blue neons that JOHN WICK already leaned on a lot (and revived, if you’re charitable), but it also has a lot of blue-grey filters that make a lot of the movement and action blend into intangible sludge. So that’s not great for an action movie, nor for a director known for, in my eyes at least, shooting action legibly and excitingly! But these problems are not always noticeable; they just hang around and distract from time to time. Otherwise, it’s a totally entertaining bit of spy business, anchored by the always great Charlize Theron and a generally oppressive vibe that fits the Berlin Wall setting. ATOMIC BLONDE was Leitch’s first sole directorial credit (and credit at all) and it drew many comparisons to JOHN WICK. The movies’ aesthetic similarities are indeed notable, but ATOMIC BLONDE’s intricacies, for good and bad, serve to distinguish it from Leitch’s previous film.
#2 — BULLET TRAIN (2022)
As Leitch’s latest movie at the time of this writing and the impetus for this piece, I anticipated some recency bias, in either direction, with watching BULLET TRAIN. But if I strip away the newness of the movie, I still have to acknowledge it as nearly Leitch’s best. Coming after the longest gap between his movies so far (at almost exactly three years since HOBBS & SHAW), the Brad Pitt-led story is actually more of an ensemble piece. The even more murderous Orient Express-esque story weaves in so many characters of such extreme personality that BULLET TRAIN balances on a line of parody. But enough of an emotional core (I was surprised I was affected by anything in this movie like that) and a proficient deployment of campy cheese keep the stakes high while staying funny. BULLET TRAIN’s greatest shortcoming is its length, a problem shared by many action blockbusters these days. At some point, the ironic and fast-talking bits that define the movie as much as the creative kills in the fight sequences drag on and provide fast diminishing returns. Still, it’s not enough to erase the watchability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry’s duo or Pitt’s enlightened hitman/snatch-and-grab guy. BULLET TRAIN is no masterpiece, but it’s great theatrical entertainment and an actually satisfying entry into the postmodern blockbuster pantheon with which we are now inundated.
#1 — JOHN WICK (2014)
I keep turning this phrase “real movie” around in my mind and how it applies to JOHN WICK. First, I think it’s a little incongruous to call Leitch’s other pictures “not real movies.” Then, I also acknowledge that it’s not like JOHN WICK is some powerful, truth-telling bit of artistic cinema. But something about the weight and heft of the movie, Leitch’s first as a (co-)director (again, with Chad Stahelski), makes JOHN WICK feel like less of an amusement park ride than even the best of his movies that followed it, such as BULLET TRAIN. And yet JOHN WICK still leans into “crowd-pleasing” simplicity. But that’s maybe what makes it so strong, that simplicity. Leitch hasn’t been able to draw out an emotional core to his spectacles the way he and Stahelski did with the “hitman is drawn back into the life” trope for JOHN WICK. Granted, he didn’t have Keanu Reeves’ mien and monotone single-mindedness, turned on and played brilliantly for the title character, for future efforts. But even still, within the big dumb action style full of disbelief suspension and superhuman (literal or not) (anti-)heroes, Leitch and Stahelski were able to ground already popular trends and obvious homages into something rich. There’s been a kind of “John Wick” effect in recent years, a revival of singular or quirky hitmen who enter a world of Asian-inflected martial arts and neon colors. For the most part, they’ve felt derivative, not inspired. JOHN WICK’s sequels and Leitch’s subsequent movies themselves have fallen prey to this, having become bigger and more extreme. But for consistent tone, creative and palpable action, and emotional simplicity, the filmmaker has yet to top his first directorial contribution.