You know you’re getting old when movie marathons start to sound exhausting. There are lots of folks who binged at least a full day of Marvel movies prior to Avengers: Endgame, but the thought of watching all three John Wick movies back-to-back in a theater sounded exhausting. However, as a dedicated reporter of opinions on popular culture, I felt it was my responsibility to binge the best original action franchise to emerge from this decade and see how well it holds together. I had to answer the question: Can there be too much action?
It turns out the answer is no, if the action is as consistently great as what is found in each John Wick movie produced so far. Six hours of shoot outs, axe throwing, increasingly complex conspiracies, and puppy love was certainly a lot, but it left me more electrified at the end than I was in the beginning. While very few human beings age as well as Keanu Reeves, his performance and energy provides a revivifying effect.
Taking all three movies together also provides some lessons on what has made this franchise so successful and how it has maintained such a high bar for quality from the start. There’s a lot to be learned from John Wick, and these are some key takeaways from the most thrilling six hours I’ve ever spent in a movie theater.
The casting direction by Suzanne Crowley and Jessica Kelly stands out as one of the most essential and underrated elements of building this series. While Keanu Reeves is obviously irreplaceable, he is supported on all sides by a perfect blend of aging stars and character actors. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick have stayed with the franchise through all three films and are both reliably brilliant. Much smaller roles go to tremendous talents as well. It’s shocking to be reminded how little screen time both Willem Dafoe and Clarke Peters receive as old friends of the eponymous hero. There’s no such thing as a small role in this series and it makes every scene pay off, even those where there isn’t a flashy setting or non-stop action.
It’s this incredible collection of HBO regulars and elder statesmen that make it possible for the first John Wick to sell its slightly off-kilter version of our own world with such confidence. The mythology of the High Table, The Continental, and so many mysterious coins is present from the start, but barely acknowledged or explained. They simply are, without any need for writers or performers to engage in excessive exposition. It lays the groundwork for more, but allows John Wick to exist as a perfectly singular unit of an action film.
And the action in this first entry is as excellent as everyone might recall from 2014. John Wick might seem slightly less invincible compared to both follow ups (he is returning from five years of retirement after all), but it’s obvious why this introduction struck a chord. Each new confrontation balances a massive body count with a healthy dose of recognizable antagonists with their own approach to violence. While the later movies blow up the budget and appeal of these scenes, all of the fundamentals are already solid.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Revisiting the second entry of the franchise, it’s clear that “Chapter 2” is a very appropriate title. Unlike the original, which still stands alone perfectly, this sequel reframes the entire enterprise, expanding upon the mythology, settings, and scale of what came before. It is both a continuation of what came before and a set up for whatever comes next. Considering all of the heavy lifting that requires, John Wick: Chapter 2 has aged very well.
The storytelling model of this movie is radically different as well. Whereas the first entry functions on a purely revenge-based motive, this one makes everything much messier. John Wick becomes the “Baba Yaga” in the first half as he reluctantly carries out a cold-blooded assassination on behalf of a new villain that makes Theon Greyjoy look slightly less obnoxious. The messiness and pain tied up in this world of elite assassins and global conspiracies is made unattractive as the audience is led to root against their hero for the first act of the film.
This new narrative also makes it clear why nobody but Keanu Reeves could possibly pull off the role. It’s essential that John Wick remain vulnerable and sympathetic even as dozens of corpses stack up around him, like a dog rescued from a fighting ring. Even as he pulls the trigger on a glamorous and powerful old friend, Reeves can turn on the “Sad Keanu” charm and keep the audience in his corner. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish, and a reminder as to why Reeves is a true movie star, one capable of carrying this franchise for many years.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
I’ve avoided discussing the actual action sequences of the series until the newest installment because it clarifies how director Chad Stahelski is balancing the need to grow and maintain a consistent tone. John Wick: Chapter 3 is one of the most impressive action movies of the past decade because it commits to the same essential elements that made the first two entries work. There is more on almost every front—action sequences, bodies, named bad guys, and exotic locales—but it all feels apiece with what came before. John Wick is an absurdly efficient assassin, but the same sort of absurdly efficient assassin that was introduced five years ago.
What makes the newest entry stand out is the willingness to try new things within the established tone and rules of the existing universe. Knife throwing and motorcycle battles make for two incredible action sequences that could easily have been planted into any of these movies. It’s only the finale that goes longer and bigger than anything that has been seen before, and John Wick certainly pays a price for that.0comments
The fundamentals are still in place though. Individual antagonists are efficiently introduced with their own personality quirks and specialities, allowing for a complete “mini-chapter” to be told in just a few minutes of action. The new places follow the same rules, spoken and unspoken, with new additions of local flavor and additional castmates. Parabellum continues to expand the story without parodying what made the first two chapters so enjoyable.
It’s that consistency and confidence that makes all three chapters of John Wick enjoyable, whether they’re seen apart or as a marathon. Very few action franchises can accomplish that feat, just think of the uneven experience you might have watching the first three entries in Mission: Impossible or Fast and the Furious. It’s clear that there was something special in the very first John Wick, and Stahelski along with his impeccable cast and crew have continued to expand upon those strengths. At this point it seems clear that wherever John Wick goes, it’s a journey worth taking for all action fans, no matter how old they might feel.