John Wick

This weekend I had the immense pleasure of watching all three extant John Wick movies. Part of the pleasure was watching them over the course of only two evenings. While the first film, in multiple ways, stands alone, the latter two (and presumably chapter four coming out next year) tell a single story.

If you like gun fu action thrillers and somehow haven’t seen these, you’ve missed something rather special. The attention to detail, the tactical reality of the fight scenes, and a whole lot more, place these movies, especially the first, among the best of their kind.

They’re a wonderful contrast to what movies seem to have turned into.

The first film, John Wick (2014), tells a complete story and introduces us to John Wick (Keanu Reeves). The movie begins at the end, just after the final battle scene. We meet Wick, badly injured, near death. He pulls out his phone to watch a video of himself and a woman. This leads to a series of flashbacks.

He’s a former world-class assassin who retired, got married, and just wanted to live peacefully with his wife (Bridget Moynahan). Except she dies of cancer. The flashbacks lead to the story’s beginning several days ago at his wife’s funeral. Afterwards, he’s left mourning her in an empty house. Then he receives a puppy his wife arranged to have delivered — part of her will he didn’t know about!

She knew he needed something to love to stay human.

Because he was (and still is) the most feared assassin in all the land. He is, as the antagonist says, “a man of focus. Commitment. Sheer will.” Not the boogeyman but who you send to kill the boogeyman.

Out with the puppy (note the kibble and toys in the backseat), a chance encounter with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the arrogant son of a Russian mob boss, is the spark that leads to raging fire. The Russian boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) is a former associate of Wick’s, but the son is ignorant of that past. The son likes Wick’s car, but Wick declines to sell it. That night, the son and his goons break into Wick’s place, ambush Wick, beat him unconscious, and steal his car.

And kill his puppy. (In one of the most heartbreaking stays-with-you scenes in any action movie ever. So, be warned.) Movies almost never kill the dog, especially a puppy, so there’s some serious shock value. But it justifies sympathizing with a cold-blooded killer who proceeds to accumulate an enormous body count (higher in each movie).

This was the intro. Most of the movie is Wick going after the guy who stole his car and killed his dog. That would have made a pretty typical shoot-em-up flick, but in the hands of writer Derek Kolstad, director/stuntman Chad Stahelski, co-director/stuntman David Leitch, and tactically and martial arts trained lead actor Keanu Reeves, it turns into something way beyond the norm.

The case includes Ian McShane as Winston Scott, manager of the Continental hotel (a neutral ground for assassins), Lance Reddick as Charon, concierge at the Continental, Williem Dafoe as Marcus, fellow assassin and friend, Adrianne Palicki as Ms. Perkins, fellow assassin and not-friend.

I give it an unqualified strong Wow! rating. It’s a masterclass in how to do this kind of movie. It has some of the best, most carefully choreographed, tactically accurate fight scenes ever seen. It makes excellent use of music, color, symbolism, and Greek mythology as story elements. It knows what it’s doing, has a deep respect for the material, and an obsessive attention to detail.

Couple notes: At the end, look closely at the dog’s cage. He was scheduled to be killed, so Wick doesn’t steal him, he saves him. Also note how the first and final scenes involve the same location. There are myriad other details illustrating how much thought went into the movie. I’ll include some links in the comments.

One thing about the John Wick movies: they do not take place in the real world but in a colorful, surreal world where enough people are professional assassins to form a major political party. (Part of what makes these movies so compelling is the tasty combination of surrealism and hyper-realism.) Civilians and even police are a colorless irrelevant background. The one cop with any presence at all is Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), who seems almost a moment of sly comic relief. He’s oh so respectful of John Wick and wouldn’t dream of interfering.

§

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) opens with an action scene that’s an echo of the story told in the first film. It largely serves to re-introduce us to who John Wick is and what has happened recently.

Wick invades a chop shop run by Viggo’s brother, Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare). Wick’s goal: more revenge on those who stole — and still have — his car. Given the price he extracted last movie, and what happens to his car as he escapes here, it might seem almost pointless. Until we see why: in the glove compartment is the last birthday card from his wife.

Bonus, the all-but-destroyed car provides an excuse for John Leguizamo to reprise his role from the first film. (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both reprise and expand their roles as Winston and Charon.)

The story kicks off when Wick gets a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime boss. D’Antonio holds Wick’s marker and demands Wick redeem it by killing Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) — Santino’s sister who holds a seat at the High Table. A seat Santino wants.

Wick tries to get out of it, but rules. Especially sticky because the High Table is the ruling body of this vast world of crime and assassins.

Ultimately, he is forced to comply. He kills Gianna in an interesting and lushly written scene. Note that, despite her actions, he still shoots her. Read this as both making it clear it was an assassination and as saving her from the damnation of suicide.

His escape from that venue is another amazing fight choreography, but what’s striking is how much it plays like a video game. This is another aspect of the surreal nature of these movies. And note the color blue, Wick’s color.

Bonus: This film features Laurence Fishburne as “The Bowery King” thus reuniting the team of Neo and Morpheus. That’s the most blatant of numerous references to The Matrix. The whole idea of a series of gun fu movies is inspired by The Matrix (and Japanese anime and Chinese martial arts movies).

For as hyper-masculine as these films are, each has an important kickass female character Wick fights against (or alongside in chapter three). First it was Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). Here it’s Ares (Ruby Rose), an assassin who is Santino’s bodyguard and security chief. An interesting twist, she’s mute.

Wick also fights Cassian (Common), Gianna’s chief bodyguard. He’s pretty pissed off about his dead ward. The fountain shooting is the one place I wonder a bit about shooting tactics. Shooting blind into a crowd is a tactical no-no, so either I’m missing something or it’s an indication of how tired and desperate Wick is at that moment.

Shooting at each other in the terminal, with silencers supposedly making them unnoticed by all those many passersby, is, I think, another bit of comic relief. It’s pushing the “invisible world of assassins” thing beyond the breaking point. But it is pretty funny.

In the end, after once again achieving his goals, Wick tosses himself from the frying pan into the fire. The movie ends with Winston, for old time’s sake, giving him one hour’s head start and John and his dog running, literally, for their lives as cell phones begin to ring.

§

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019) picks up the story immediately. Wick (and his dog) are on the run from all their fellow assassins.

While these films maintain their quality and attention to detail, and while the fight scenes get better, the plot begins to feel a bit grandiose. There is also a faint whiff of formula by now. Each movie has been ever so slightly less great than its predecessor, but the overall quality is so high that, even so, I give all three Wow! ratings. But progressively slightly milder ones.

In this chapter, we learn more about the world of assassins and the High Table. Hoping to set things right, Wick goes to Casablanca seeking an audience with the god-like figure who rules the High Table. Meanwhile, back in New York, people who helped Wick along the way suffer consequences dealt out by the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon).

This film, in a scene featuring Anjelica Huston, gives us some hints of Wick’s past and his training as an assassin. Huston is one of several who suffer consequences from (even unwillingly) helping Wick. So does Laurence Fishburne, who reprises his role as “The Bowery King”. The kickass female assassin this time is an old frenemy of Wick’s, Sofia Al-Azwar (Halle Berry). She obviously hates Wick, but he’s able to enlist her help.

[Sidenote: Berry spent months training with the dogs and in CQB (close quarters battle). It really shows. Yet another amazing fight scene. With dogs!]

The climatic final battle this time involves Zero (Mark Dacascos) and his sword-fighting ninja henchmen. Instead of a huge room filled with mirrors, a huge room filled with reflective glass cases. But file it under “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The formula works. It always has when you do it right.

When you care about the details and take the time to get them right, it shows. When you love and respect the subject you’re writing about, it shows. When you put in the effort to do it well, it shows.

§

The great thing about all three is that they’re so rich and deep they can be watched repeatedly. They stand up to study and scrutiny. I’m seriously considering buying the trilogy and I never buy movies anymore.

John Wick is something like a Jack Reacher gone wrong. They represent what has become a rare archetype: the strong hero the bad guys rightfully fear. They’re different people but share a desire to be left alone. And the strength to back it up.

§ §

Speaking of Hollywood-can-still-make-great-movies-these-days, shout-outs to:

Top Gun: Maveric (2022). A very worthy sequel with some edge-of-your-seat flying scenes. The first one, from 1986, is a modern classic. Both are sheer thrilling fun.

A bit too much fun for just an Ah! rating, so I give it a soft Wow! rating. Generally speaking, Tom Cruise makes movies worth watching. Some really worth watching. He shares with Keanu Reeves a dedication to perfection, detail, and authenticity. Both do many of their own stunts. Both train extensively for their roles.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). I’ve been impressed by every Quentin Tarantino movie I’ve seen. I think Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997) aren’t just his two best films, but two of the best films I’ve seen, period.

I didn’t love his last three as much as his first four. I liked his fifth, Death Proof (2007), more than the last four, but less than the first three. But I loved this latest one (number nine) and give it a Wow! rating. (The deal with Tarantino is that for a long time he’s said he’ll only ever make ten movies.)

We’d recently moved to Los Angeles when those murders occurred, so I remember it vividly. Tarantino’s fantasy revisionist history is as cathartic as it is hysterical. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are outstanding.

The movie’s been called Tarantino’s love letter to the Hollywood of that era. It definitely is. That was my town; I knew that Hollywood. Never got much inside its doors, but I recognize that Los Angeles so well. For me there was a serious nostalgia vibe.

§ §

So, not one, not two, not three, but five movies with Wow! ratings. In all cases because they make story king and enrich the tale with detail, love, and expertise.

Stay wicked, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “John Wick

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a bunch of links to YouTube videos about the John Wick movies:

    Honest Trailers did one video for the first movie (4:30) and a second video that encompassed all three movies (7:28).

    Cinema Sins did “Everything Wrong With …” videos for all three: John Wick (12:06), John Wick: Chapter 2 (15:50), and John Wick: Chapter 3 (15:55). These are wonderful for reminding oneself that even great films have flaws.

    Cinema Wins did “Everything GREAT About…” videos for all three as well: John Wick (18:42), John Wick: Chapter 2 (21:04), and John Wick: Chapter 3 (24:02). These are great for pointing out things you may not have noticed or known about.

    Screen Rant did “Pitch Meeting” videos for all three: John Wick (6:15), John Wick: Chapter 2 (7:05), and John Wick: Chapter 3 (7:01). These are freakin’ hilarious! Definitely my favorites. (Weird because most of what Screen Rant does leaves me cold. I unsubscribed years ago.) These are so funny, here’s the one for Top Gun: Maverick (6:10).

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In JW1, Wick’s dog is taken away from him. In JW2, everything except the dog is taken. JW3, then, involves the consequences of his actions in JW1 and JW2. Presumably the fourth chapter ties it all up.

  • Anonymole

    You killed my dog. My dead wife gave me that dog. I’m gonna kill 77 of you now and somehow avoid 9,421 flying bullets in the process.

    Yeah, the action was enthralling, the plot not so much.

  • Lady from Manila

    As a hard-core fan of heavy action flicks (plots are secondary to me if the battle scenes are awesome. That’s why I enjoyed Kill Bill1&2, the very first GI Joe and Mortal Kombat movies, Deadpool 2, the Matrix 2, to name just a few), I now wish I’d watched the John Wick series when they were shown in the theatres here. I’d no idea they were that good. I thought it was merely another gun-fight extravaganza which got fortunate to acquire Keanu Reeves for its lead. I’ve always liked John Leguizamo, too, and Bridget Moynahan’s classic beauty. I’ll put it on my list of Future Must Watch.

    Initially, I dismissed my excited sister’s recommendation of Top Gun Maverick. First, there was a 30-year gap between the first and the sequel and, second, Val Kilmer, my favorite of them all in the original TG, whose real-life condition incapacitated him any chance to play Tom’s rival once again is saddening to me. Everyone, however, was singing high praises for the film. So when my sis said she’d be willing to watch it twice for me, my reply was “Sure, let’s go fly! 😃” It was definitely worth it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The John Wick movies are definitely must-see for hard-core fans of heavy action flicks! One thing: Moynahan only appears in flashbacks and photos. Leguizamo has a small (but important) part in the first one and only a brief appearance in the second. I’m mostly over Marvel and superheroes in general but I loved the Deadpool movies! Both for the humor and the over-the-top action.

      Have you ever seen The Raid? Or Tom-Yum-Goong (or any of the Tony Jaa) movies? Given your location in the world, I kinda assume you must have. If somehow not, I think they’d be right up your alley.

      You almost can’t go wrong with a Tom Cruise movie! The time gap made it seem like it was gonna be cheese, but it’s a sequel more than worthy of the original, and that’s saying something.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Amazon had the whole trilogy on sale for $19.99, so I’m now the proud “owner” of all three John Wick movies.

    I almost bought the Top Gun package, but it was both movies for $27.99, which is a bit rich for my blood. Good movies, but doubt I’ll watch them again. (I might have some friends over to watch the sequel, in which case I’ll rent it again. More likely I’ll screen Everything Everywhere All at Once for them.)

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