The John Wick films

John Wick (2014)

Rating: B

Dir: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Star: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe

There’s something refreshingly direct and old-school about this. Bad guys piss good guy off. Good guy ruthlessly destroys bad guys. The end. Who needs more than that? However, it’s as much in the execution and the concept, and Reeves – along with the rest of the cast and crew, who deserve plaudits for their parts – deliver the goods, to a bone-crunching degree. Wick (Reeves) just lost his wife after a battle with illness, and she sends him a gift from beyond the grave, in the shape of a puppy. An unfortunate encounter with a Russian mobster’s son (Allen) at a gas-station, leads to the theft of Wick’s car – and, worse yet, the bastards kill his dog.

Yep, they killed Keanu Reeves’ puppy, and now they must PAY. For Wick used to be a mob enforcer, who used to work for the punk’s father, Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist), and according to the gangster, once killed three people with a pencil. That delight remains unseen – I was really hoping we’d witness a battle in an office supplies closet – yet there’s plenty of alternative mayhem to make up for it, as Tarasov realizes the only defense is a good offense. There have been a lot of shitty adaptations of video games; this is a really good adaptation of a video game, albeit one which doesn’t actually exist. It has a fully-realized world, one in which the police simply don’t exist, even after a hellacious shoot-out at a night-club leaves dozens of corpses behind, and an interesting range of missions for Wick to accomplish, as he tracks down his prey with relentless dedication.

It’s the action which particularly elevates this to a memorable level, being unashamedly R-rated, with head-shots to spare, and the kind of close quarter gun-play last seen in Equilibrium. It’s likely Reeves’ best work since the original Matrix, and makes the most of his limited acting, as well as impressive physical capabilities. Both directors are veteran stuntmen, and it’s clear this is where the effort and energy mostly went in this production: but at least it has effort and energy, and plenty of it, rather than being a lazy adaptation of another comic-book. As refreshing as sucking on a lump of lemon ice. More please, Hollywood.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Rating: B-

Dir: Chad Stahelski
Star: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Laurence Fishburne

Is it wrong of me to be somewhat disappointed by this? Oh, it’s still a solid enough piece of action. But it lacks the elegant simplicity of the original, and what is added – in terms of an entire society of assassins – is not enough to make up for what is missing and/or repeated. As I remarked in my review of the original, “This is a really good adaptation of a video game, albeit one which doesn’t actually exist.” However, there’s only so long you can play the same game before it starts to become stale.

This begins almost immediately after the events of its predecessor. John (Reeves) has an old debt called in by Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio), and is compelled to accept the job of killing Santino’s sister. Though John honours the contract, his employer opts to put a $7 million contract out on Wick, to tidy up the loose end he represents. BIG mistake. You might as well have killed John’s puppy. With a host of fellow assassins on his tail, he seeks help from the Bowery King (Fishburne) to take D’Antonio out. Though doing so, may make Wick more enemies than even a 122-minute sequel can handle.

While mild, my disappointment may be related to the innate limitations of the gun-fu which the film showcases. Compare and contrast, say, Atomic Blonde, from the uncredited co-director of both films, David Leitch [a result of the silly director’s guild rule about not allowing two people to get that credit]. To me, Blonde was superior, perhaps because I find martial arts inherently more cinematic and interesting than firing guns. There’s just more variety possible, than when you are dealing, in its lowest incarnation, with the very simple task of pulling a trigger.

That said, Leitch and Stahelski do a solid job, squeezing every possible ounce of entertainment value out of the act. You can imagine the brainstorming production meetings around a large whiteboard, gradually being covered with suggestions of interesting ways in which people can be shot dead. It’s certainly a delight to see another action film which doesn’t pull its punches, fully meriting its mature viewers rating, mostly achieved through copious blood splatter. The glimpses into the assassins’ world are intriguing – yet also frustrating, for their incompleteness.

And that’s another issue. This doesn’t end, so much as set up the third installment, and so isn’t as satisfying as a standalone entity. It doesn’t help that Santino is an underwhelming, watered-down villain in comparison to Viggo Tarasov in chapter one. Somebody like Wick needs a protagonist who can be his equal: though we see some interesting minions, played by Common and Ruby Rose, they never pose much of a credible threat. Much like Keanu’s classic action film, The Matrix, there’s a definite case of “second movie syndrome” in the sequel, even if this doesn’t sink as low as the Zion rave. While still a cut above most action films, dare I suggest it’s a franchise which might be over-rated?

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

Rating: B+

Dir: Chad Stahelski
Star: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Mark Dacascos, Ian McShane

After an underwhelming Part 2, the makers add another extra clause to the title for #3, and that seems to have done the trick (unlike for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life). Still not sure about the point of tacking on “Parabellum”, which means “prepare for war” in Latin. Guess it helps distinguish this from all the other “John Wick: Chapter 3” films going around.

Titular snark aside, this is a considerable improvement on its predecessor, right out of the gate. Once more, it follows immediately on from the previous part, here with John Wick (Reeves) have been declared persona non grata and a $14 million bounty placed on his head. This opens in an excellent, lengthy chase/fight sequence through the streets with, it seems, everyone after Wick. Not, of course, that this constitutes more than a slight inconvenience to him, even if it may be the first use of a horse as an offensive weapon in a hand-to-hand brawl.

Keanu is eventually able to escape to Morocco, with the help of a slumming Vanessa Redgrave, where he aims to make his case to the Elder, the only person who can cancel the bounty. There, John meets an old friend, Sofia (Berry), in charge of the assassins’ Continental Hotel in Casablanca. After literally wandering through the desert, Wick gets his pardon – but only if he returns to New York and kills Winston (McShane), who runs the Continental there. You’d think everyone would have learned by now, that John Wick will not kill people just because you order him. Inevitably, he refuses, setting up a confrontation with the High Table’s enforcer Zero (Dacascos), his minions, and a metric fuckwad of plate glass (as shown, top).

The presence of Dacascos should clue you in that that focus of this one is back from gunplay to martial arts, and is all the better for it. He and Reeves are older than I am (both 1964 babies, to be precise), but you’d not guess, based on the way they brawl their way through this. It just took Dacascos a lot longer to reach international stardom: I remember watching him in thoroughly entertaining B-movies like Drive, more than twenty years ago, but he never seemed to get the break-out role he deserved. Here, Zero is exactly the kind of foil John Wick needs, and which was badly missing from the second installment.

This is a glorious spectacle of carnage, perhaps climaxing in the Casablancan battle, where John and Sofia have to fight their way out after an unfortunate incident involving one of Sofia’s dogs. [It’s okay: it was wearing a bulletproof jacket, I kid you not…] This is a near-perfect action set-piece, not least for the impressive display of canine-fu, proving that doggie vengeance is best served with a cold nose. I suspect Stahelski could probably make an entire film based entirely around animals kicking human ass. This isn’t to say the rest is no good, though I did find that whole “wandering round the desert” thing, rather overdone. It still counts as among the best of Hollywood action this decade.

John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)

Rating: A-

Dir: Chad Stahelski
Star: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Ian McShane, Bill Skarsgård

If this is indeed the end of John Wick as far as Keanu Reeves is concerned, it’s a more than fitting epitaph. It drops an exclamation point on the end of the sentence – as well as a few asterisks, a square bracket and whatever this § character is supposed to be. It probably should be the end, because I just can’t see any significant room for improvement. The plot sees Wick (Reeves) seeking a way out, while being hunted by… Well, just about everyone from New York to Japan, most notably the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Skarsgård), who has control of John’s old pal, blind master assassin, Caine (Yen). Wick has his allies too, most notably manager of the Continental, Winston Scott (McShane).

At two hours and 49 minutes long, this is the Gone With the Wind of gratuitous violence. Going in, I was concerned whether it was going to be able to sustain itself for that long. I needn’t have worried, because it certainly doesn’t feel as long as, oh, Cloud Atlas or The Hateful Eight. For it simply gets everything right. Every character you encounter is interesting: rather than Caine simply being an antagonist, Stahelski takes the time to set him up as a man, who desperately wants out of the business, but cannot leave, because he knows that would imperil his daughter: I’d love to see a spin-off there. Or there’s Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), manager of the Continental in Osaka and his daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama): scope there further exploration too, as a post-credit sequence suggests. And, of course, the poignant presence of the late Lance Reddick.

The other area where this is phenomenal, is the look of the film. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen has made what is probably the best-looking action movie of all time. Regardless of location, from the neon-drenched streets of Japan or the ancient churches of Paris, everything looks amazing. His work reaches a peak in what may be the most striking single shot in the genre’s history, where the film effectively moves into top-down shooter mode for an extended, single shot. It’s like John Wick is playing Grnnd Theft Auto on the Playstation 1, with all the mayhem that implies. Side-note: whoever makes Dragon’s Breath ammo – which is exactly what it sounds like – should prepare themselves for a run on their product.

Which brings me to the action in general. About the only flaw I can find is, the CGI on some of the falls was ropey. Jackie Chan would have done that shit for realz. Otherwise though? Awesome, from beginning to end. And by beginning, I mean the assault on the Osaka Continental, which might perhaps have been the best of the entire film for me, showcasing a breathtaking array of styles and approaches, from gun-fu through samurai swordplay, to hard-core martial arts. This isn’t to knock the other set-pieces, which would be candidates for scene of the year anywhere else. Of course, need to mention Keanu’s fight against Scott Adkins. In a fat suit. With a German accent. It’s as insane as it sounds, yet is played utterly straight, like everything else here. I lost count of the number of times I literally LOL’d at the insanity of it all.

It’s a combination of all these elements which elevates Chapter 4 to the stratosphere. There have been films with great action. There have been films that looked good. There have been films which make an emotional contact with the viewer. But I am very hard-pushed to think of many which managed all elements of that Triple Crown. Return of the King might have been the last such, and that was twenty years ago. After an extended period where the joy of cinema going has been diminished, this was the best experience I’ve had in a very long time.

This review is part of Project Adkins, covering the movies of Scott Adkins.