AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for all four John Wick movies
To me, the defining moment in the John Wick series came not during the movies themselves, but in the theater when I was watching Chapter 4. On the screen, Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of The Continental, the series’ hotel for assassins, is talking to John (Keanu Reeves) about his fallen friend Charon (the late, great Lance Reddick) and the meaning of friendship. Next to me, a guy reached over and patted his buddy on the leg. It was a beautiful moment; after all, if men can’t express their feelings through a John Wick movie, how can they?
It’s also something that the series has always excelled at — taking hyperkinetic action sequences and melding them with simple, clean emotional throughlines. It can be argued that, although multiple dad movie franchises can be running simultaneously, only one ends up defining the look and feel of the era: the Jack Ryan movies of the ’90s, the Bourne movies of the early-to-mid ’00s, and the Taken movies of the late 00’s/early 10’s. From 2014 until now, that slot has been filled by the John Wick movies.
Looking at what these movies have become, the original John Wick is so straightforward that it’s almost laughable. By now, the setup has become the stuff of screenwriting legend: after losing his wife (Bridget Moynihan) to illness, John receives a puppy she had bought him before she passed to keep him company. As the idiotic son of a Russian gangster (Michael Nyqvist), Alfie Allen breaks into John’s house, steals his car, and kills the puppy, setting John on a mission of revenge. It’s a simple plot to hang a bunch of action sequences on, but it’s effective, and it instantly puts the audience on the side of a brutal hitman.
The rest of the films in the series became longer, louder, and more intricate, but kept the core of what made the original so special — incredible worldbuilding, excellent casting (the first movie alone contains a murderer’s row of character actors: Willem Defoe, David Patrick Kelly, Randall Duk Kim, Dean Winters, and the aforementioned McShane, Reddick, and Nyqvist), and complex but coherent action sequences, superbly orchestrated by series director Chad Stahelski, Reeves’s former stunt double.
John Wick: Chapter 2 had its work cut out for it. After John kills the mob boss and his son, finds a new dog, and drives away into a (presumably) happy ending, it feels like something of a bummer that the movie has to pull him back into the underworld. The series has an easier time of it than most, let alone ones following movies that were never intended to be followed. It has the first movie’s big “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back” monologue to hang its plot on, and more importantly, it turns John’s denied peace into the main thematic hook for the rest of the series. After hearing that John is back, Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (Ricardo Scamarcio) calls in a favor to have John kill his sister on the eve of her coronation to the High Table, the series’s shadowy affiliation of mob bosses. The first hour of the movie moves a little slowly and is way more dependent on setting up the world than these movies usually are. But once John completes the hit and D’Antonio sets a bounty on his head to tie up any loose ends, the movie starts to fulfill the promise of its opening scene, a chase through a city lit up with silent-era comedy. Almost every hitman in the city has it out for John, and If the movie struggled a bit in transitioning to a franchise, it more than made up for it by upping the physical comedy and worldbuilding (one of my favorite things about this series is, for every question it answers, it raises ten more).
John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum (for me, the high point of the series) picks up where the second one left off, with John on the run after committing the sin of murdering D’Antonio in the Continental, breaking one of the High Table’s biggest rules. If the last hour of Chapter 2 had fun seeing how John would handle being hunted by almost every hitman in the city, the first half hour of Chapter 3 ups the ante to an almost absurd degree, resulting in one of the greatest, most breathless sustained action sequences since the first act of The Fugitive. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who took over for Jonathan Sela starting with Chapter 2, takes the neon-drenched atmosphere of the previous two movies and kicks it into overdrive, resulting in a surreal lighting scheme that tells us we’re now firmly in the realm of fantasy.
Nothing in Chapter 3 tops that first sequence, though the movie certainly knocks itself out trying. Halle Berry proves herself capable of carrying an action series of her own as Sofia, an uneasy ally John meets in Casablanca (the series very much wears its influences on its sleeve) while attempting to remove the price from his head. And the climactic showdown at the Continental sees John face off against one of his own fanboys (Mark Dacascos, hilarious) in a sword fight that’s a marvel of lighting and production design.
Chapter 3 ends with John and Charon successfully fending off waves of intruders sent by the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). In turn, Winston betrays John in order to keep his position at the hotel, and the Bowery King (Reeves’s Matrix costar Laurence Fishburne) rescues him. Together, they swear revenge. But what’s interesting about John Wick Chapter 4 is that it doesn’t really follow up on that promise. In an inversion of what we usually expect to happen with franchises these days, Chapter 4 was originally meant to be two movies before it got whittled down to one. The opening scene of John killing members of the High Table gives us an idea of what the first of those two might have looked like. I’ve already talked at length about Chapter 4 here, but I will say that in an era of endless franchise extensions, it’s refreshing to see Chapter 4 end on a note of finality.
Or does it? Shortly before I began writing this piece, Lionsgate confirmed John Wick Chapter 5 is in early development. Knowing what happens at the end of Chapter 4, it can’t help but be a a letdown that this franchise is still going, despite its consistent quality. The series’ mix of fluid action and sneaky emotionality is perfectly suited to Reeves, and it helped revive his career and establish Stahelski as one of the greatest action directors of his generation. With them at the helm, I still can’t help but feel a little excited.
Next time: We celebrate Year of the Month and get horny on main with John Boorman’s Excalibur!