2014 saw the beginning of one of the most unique sagas in recent action cinema history: John Wick (Keanu Reeves), also known as the Baba Yaga, was born in an era where brainless blockbusters were the norm, and immediately offered something different.
The 2014 movie focuses on the grieving Wick, a retired hitman who just lost his beloved wife Helen after a long illness. When the puppy she left him is killed by the son of a local kingpin, John has no choice but to get back in the business and avenge the dog.
The rest is history: after four films and an upcoming spin-off titled Ballerina, featuring Ana De Armas, John Wick is recognised as one of the most solid action franchises.
The Book of John Wick
The fourth film in the saga, released a few months ago in 2023, was met with critical acclaim from fans and critiques alike, and is, indeed, a quintessential action movie! Yet to get to that place, Wick has outlived three other movies, and managed to stay a step ahead of other action franchises. In 2014, the first entry got off to an excellent start: John Wick’s slow pace and simple plot offered a stark contrast to the action blockbusters of the time. Like John McClane in his glory days, Wick isn’t trying to save the world, but is just involved in a small-scale story that snowballs into something bigger. At the turn of the 2010s, John Wick’s beautiful editing also made it a standout – it avoided the common choppy editing which makes so many movies of the early 2000s hard to rewatch. With its dark and mature tone and its beautiful shots, the film broke the mold of action films, and put some “gravity” back in them. Wick himself, a grieving anti-hero who simply wants to avenge his dog, is easy to root for, and his fights feel warranted – and thus, impactful.
How do you top a simple and effective action film? John Wick: Chapter 2’s answer was straight to the point: the sequel, released in 2017, decided to expand the first film’s universe – rather than simply topping its action. Yes, the second movie does go where the first one didn’t: the assassin now finds himself fighting the Camorra in Italy and, in one of the saga’s most memorable sequences, he kills a man with a pencil! Yet John Wick: Chapter 2’s real achievement is its world-building: creating a universe which could only be imagined in the first film. An entire underworld of assassins exist in front of our eyes, led by a mysterious and threatening High Table. Continental concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and manager Winston (Ian McShane), who run a safe haven for killers, are just the tip of the iceberg, and Wick is just one of many sharp guns in a merciless world. The second film lacks some of its predecessor’s gravity, but it does allow the Wick saga to embrace its over-the-top and pulp nature.
The John Wick-verse
This is thanks to a unique universe, which uses neo-noir tropes in a witty way. Wick might be serious, but his movies never pretend to be more than hours of beautiful, unbridled chaos. The ending of the second film sees John transgressing the rules of the Continental hotel, much to the dismay of Winston who has to declare him “Excommunicado” – effectively putting a bounty on his head. This leads us to Parabellum, the third entry in the franchise, released in 2019. On paper, this third movie could be called the weakest in the franchise: it serves as a filler before the final chapter, and keeps toying with the same themes, by having Wick trying to survive in a world where his friends are ever less numerous. Yet Parabellum lives up to its name: it raises the stakes for the final film, and it keeps the saga’s pulp formula alive and well. The neo-noir clichés are now pushed to the maximum, with the franchise even starting to design its own tropes. John Wick 3 knows that the saga has become iconic, and now has fun getting Wick to kill with the most improbable objects. In the movie’s most interesting sequence, John reclaims his former name, Jardani Jovonovich, to get back to his original crime family. Said brood features a stern matriarch (a delightful Anjelica Huston), some killer ballerinas and a few steampunk assassins. The imagery of the underworld would not be complete without the coolest radio operators possible, and a colour palette which has banned all shades other than blue, orange and purple. The franchise has now successfully developed its own universe and themes, making it a literal standout.
Of course, Reeves’ ghost-like presence is essential to the saga, and the actor arguably gives his most compelling performance in the fourth and final chapter. In one of 2023’s best action movies, Keanu Reeves has few lines, but a lot to say with his body language and longing looks. John Wick: Chapter 4 sees Wick desperately trying to regain his freedom – in life or in death. This fourth entry is an apotheosis: while it does feel a little bloated towards the end, its fighting sequences are action at its finest! Not only does Keanu get some excellent moves, but he is joined by other fighters such as Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama and the incredible Donnie Yen. Here, the carnage gets more personal: for once, we see John truly haunted by friendships from his past. Even Wick’s status as a legend is constantly tested. He is pushed to the limits by the High Table’s final trial, and death is getting closer.
The Saga’s Ultimate Action
John Wick 4 is an excellent end to an equally powerful franchise: it offers a testament to the saga’s unique action – by featuring some iconic villains, such as the nasty Killa (Scott Adkins) – and perfectly matches its central themes of grief, freedom and acceptance of death.
The film also takes a final step towards the expansion of its universe: as justified by its ending, the world is not just about John Wick anymore, and we meet his friend Kenji Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his former ally turned rival Caine (Donnie Yen). We now have a much wider view of the assassins’ universe, which exists beyond our favourite hitman and will continue after him.
In an era where pulp is less present in action movies, John Wick’s brutal and fun films, which fully embrace their over-the-top nature, feel refreshing!