Directed by one-time Keanu Reeves and Brandon Lee stunt double Chad Stahelski, what is currently the John Wick trilogy, starring Reeves in the titular role, is a mixture of brazenly over the top gun battles and fisticuffs tending toward obviously choreographed close-quarters martial arts as the franchise progresses, with pithy dialogue which varies from the quotable to the laughable. Rumour has it that, following the success of Chapter 3, John Wick Chapter 4 has been fast-tracked by Lionsgate and is due for release in 2021.
Having recently watched all three current films back to back (the weather was lousy) I’d like to offer my opinion on their various and varying qualities. Spoilers ahoy!
John Wick (2014) came as a breath of fresh air among the superhero films as a very much straightforward action film with a simple premise. A grieving hitman comes out of retirement in Taken style to get his revenge on the gangsters who stole his muscle car and killed the puppy that his dead wife had left him. I mentioned it glowingly but briefly in this post but want to talk some more about it here.
The linear plot is only slightly complicated by the fact that the main culprit of the robbery was the son of Tarasov a leading gangster (Michael Nyqvist, who sadly died of lung cancer in 2017) that Wick had previously done some wet-work for. The weaselly son is played by Game of Thrones veteran Alfie Allen (who played the much put upon Theon Greyjoy in the HBO TV show) who gets just enough screen time to establish the fact that he’s quite loathsome.
Wick’s reputation precedes him. Known as the baba-yaga or bogeyman among the criminal community, a story of how he took down three targets with just a pencil is legendary. Tarasov is beside himself when he finds out what his son has done and is torn between disowning him and trying to protect him from Wick. Wick on the other hand is single-minded in his quest for revenge which he metes out in spectacular fashion on everyone who stands in his way.
Willem Dafoe plays a nice mentor role as an older, but active, assassin called Marcus employed by Tarasov to take Wick out, although its obvious from the off that Marcus will be helping rather than hindering Wick’s progress. Rather more uncertain is the motivation of Ian McShane’s character Winston – the owner of Wick’s local Continental Hotel; a safe haven for assassins. McShane excels in playing these morally ambiguous roles.
The film ends with a body count of 77 and a badly injured Wick finding a replacement dog. Wick is virtually indestructible and reminiscent of Cameron’s Terminator in that respect and in how he dispatches his enemies with ruthless efficiency. The film is dark, gritty and stylish. The sparing use of coloured subtitles is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie films and used to good effect.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) is for me the weakest of the three current films developing as it does the rather silly graphic novel-esque level underworld infrastructure that exists in the world of Wick with none of the realism or character development of the first film. The section of the film where Wick gets a bulletproof suit made and picks weaponry like he is selecting a fine wine (from a ‘sommelier’ played by an under-used Peter Serafinowicz) pretty much sets the cartoon level of this chapter and the body count is predictably almost doubled (128). Again, I’ve already talked briefly about Chapter 2 in this post, but I’ll give it a few more words here.
A loose end from the previous film is tied up quickly as an opening amuse bouche in Chapter 2; Wick recovers his car from a chop shop, kills around a dozen henchmen and pretty much writes off his vehicle in the process. Abram (Peter Stormare who played alongside Reeves in Constantine) who runs the chop shop is a Tarasov, but agrees not to hold the fact that Wick has pretty much killed off his whole workforce against him. It’s a good reminder of how the name John Wick strikes fear into his enemies.
Back home, Wick is presented with a marker from Italian bad guy Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) which essentially forces him to take on the job of going to Rome and killing off his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) who is protected by a tough looking bodyguard Cassian played by Common, but who takes her own life rather than let Wick bump her off. Santino, who blows up Wick’s house when he initially refuses to take the job, is then promoted to be a member of the criminal ruling body called the High Table.
Wick has a long drawn out fight with Cassian and then decides that he better assassinate Santino given that he sent a bunch of assassins to kill him in Rome. Most notable is Ruby Rose’s mute character Ares who is leader of the crew despite her impediment. Why she needs to be mute is a mysterious choice which might have been better left on writer Derek Kolstad’s doodle pad. A well-received new addition to the cast is Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King who begrudgingly gives Wick a gun and seven bullets to match the price on his head.
Wick uses the bullets wisely and then in true first person shooter style uses what he picks up from the people he kills to restock his weaponry and ammo. There’s a nice ‘hall of mirrors’ false finale which works very well on screen but by then we’ve been served up with so many action film tropes the audience can be forgiven for being a bit tired out. It’s actually a relief when Wick ignores the rules of the Continental and puts a bullet in Santino’s head while he’s having some dinner.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) continues straight on from Chapter 2 with Wick on the run after killing Santino and being declared excommunicado from the assassin’s guild. With a multi-million dollar bounty on his head for killing a member of the High Table he needs to keep dodging bullets, fists and blades, while he tries to dig himself out of the grave he’s dug for himself. His dog gets placed to one side like the annoying leftover from the first film that he is. Wick doesn’t even give him a name which just seems to demonstrate Kolstad’s lack of interest in the animal.
I thought the film was going to see the Bowery King and Winston team up with Wick and new character Sofia (Halle Berry) to bring down the High Table, but it soon becomes clear that Wick is only going to receive limited help from these characters. Sofia is an interesting addition and the fact that she has a couple of kick-ass ball-biting attack dogs adds to the fun.
Indeed the film is a lot more satisfying from a storytelling point of view and perhaps the lower body count in this chapter (94) is an indicator that the writers (Kolstad got help on this one perhaps at the behest of the studio) had something more than just kill kill kill on their minds this time around. Wick is still as indestructible as ever – often thanks to his bulletproof suit – and the obsession with guns is comparable to a Call of Duty player perfecting his multiplayer loadouts, but there is a story here.
The first two films were characterised by action over dialogue and what dialogue there was often quite awful. This chapter seems to have benefitted from the three extra writers in terms of the script and hints at previous missions (e.g. saving Sophia’s daughter from a spot of bother) and the insertion of a partial origin story for Wick. Obviously the stand out line, spoilt by the trailer, is ‘borrowed’ from The Matrix. Asked what he needs Wick replies “guns, lots of guns” and I for one punched the air.
The origin story for Wick is that his real name is Jardani Jovonovich and he is Belarusian. He was an orphan taken in by the criminal organisation Ruska Roma, who appear to specialise in training assassins or (weirdly) ballerinas who all have the same tattoos that Wick has sported since the first film. Anjelica Huston plays the director of the dance school who tries to help Wick in his troubles but it is Winston who seemingly helps Wick the most. However by the end of the film Wick returns to Morpheus, I mean the Bowery King!, who is super pissed off at the High Table and gets him all riled up for Chapter 4.