They killed his dog, stole his car, and hell followed with him. The premise of John Wick sounds like a Johnny Cash song playing in the middle of a modern western. Only instead of the man with no name, this hitman had a name everyone knew all too well. Deadly and precise, he was one widow the Russians shouldn't have messed with.
What started as an independently constructed little action film back in 2014 has blossomed into a full-bodied action franchise that has taken Hollywood by storm. Chad Stahelski's modestly budgeted ($20 million) nearly made all of that back on opening weekend, and ended up with a worldwide take of $133 million.
2017's Chapter Two, budgeted at $40 million, brought in $92 million in the US and $158 million worldwide. Stahelski, directing once again from a Derek Kolstad script, expanded the universe of Wick (Keanu Reeves) in the sequel, going abroad to Europe and back to New York. The deadly killer dressed in a silk suit took no prisoners, and a third chapter was ordered.
This week, the trailer for John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum debuted on the internet to rave reviews, with people developing a feverish need to drag the video player dot back to the start a few times. To think Wick had gotten gas at a different station back in the first film and not accidentally ran into those unfortunate Russian mafia wannabes.
Take a man's dog, right after he lost his wife, and you are asking for trouble. Let's track 5 reasons why the first two films started out as independently financed passion projects and turned into the best action films from the past decade. Only The Bourne films and Christopher McQuarrie-directed Mission: Impossible films stand close to Wick.
5) Tongue in cheek humor
It's not doom and gloom with Wick's adventures. The late Michael Nyqvist's mob boss reaction to John Leguizamo's Aurelio telling him why he had to punch the man's son (Game of Thrones alum, Alfie Allen) was priceless. "John Wick. He killed his dog, and stole his car." Nyqvist's response: "Oh..." The stories he tells about Wick's past of killing, saying he once saw the man kill three guys with a pencil, are darkly comedic.
It's as if Kolstad stayed up late a few nights, caught all the action films from the 70's and 80's, and constructed a guy who was born for that era. An anti-hero who was impossible to take your eyes away from, but one that could add a little fun levity to a situation. When Reeves shouts, "I'm thinking I'm back!" at the bad guys in the first film, there was a little chuckle. The filmmakers know how audiences feel about Reeves, and subtly injected it into the script.
Lots of action, but laughs too.
4) No romantic subplots or lingering, useless plot threads
The only romance we find in these films are the images of Wick's late wife (Bridget Moynahan). The woman who convinced him to get out of the killing business long ago yet succumbed to cancer is referenced many times in the trilogy, but it's always done with taste and soulful pride instead of a need to fill a quota.
Wick doesn't get a new girlfriend or sidekick. The film were take a big hit if genre contraptions seeped into these movies. He doesn't need a partner or any sex; this man may be a cold-blooded killer, but he's also a hopeless romantic. All he wants is a gun, a dog, and his muscle car.
These movies had a wonderful one track mind, showing zero need for useless filler that bogged down other sequels in other franchises.
3) A stellar supporting cast that does just enough
Ian McShane. Lance Reddick. Common. Laurence Fishburne. Nyqvist. Leguizamo. Willem Dafoe and Dean Winters in the first film. Ruby Rose and Adrianne Palicki. Riccardo Scarmacio. Actors who know how to make a dent with little screen time.
McShane is my favorite, playing Winston, boss of the Continental in New York, a place where Wick does plenty of "business." The Deadwood and American Gods star has a wistful ignorance to certain things in his dealings with killers, and it's both comical and soulful. The actor has a classic look, great voice, and instantly prophetic. You want him to come back instead of needing him to leave.
Same goes for Reddick, producing a performance that is completely different from his work in HBO's The Wire.
2) First class, dedicated stunt work
Without the high-wire stunts, these films would be less. They are breathtaking, seamless, and constantly thrilling.
The fights look real. Why? Stahelski pans out with the camera, showing the footwork and movement instead of just jump-cutting and dousing viewers with closeups. You aren't left dizzy from the camera's red bull intake, but the merciless of the fights.
The gun work is similarly masterful. All guns are held correctly, fired soundly, and actually run out of bullets and sometimes miss their targets.
It helps that the filmmaker is a former stunt man. He worked as Reeves' stunt double on The Matrix films, and you can tell he wants to get it right and not churn out more useless arbitrary combat sequences.
Take the first fight scene in Chapter 2. Wick crashes his car into a warehouse stuffed with cars, notably cab cars. As soon as he gets out of the car, the camera pans out and watches Reeves strike adversaries with punches, toss others over his shoulder, and take damage as well. It's not sped up or messed with. It's classic stunt work, seamlessly constructed by someone who knows the game.
We need more stunt performers-turned directors.
Before John Wick arrived in theaters, Reeves hadn't had a true box office hit since 2005's Constantine, which barely recouped its budget in the USA with healthy support overseas. An action star known for Speed and Point Break among other romantic comedies, Reeves didn't have a true iconic role on his resume.
He does now.
I can't imagine anyone else playing John Wick. That's the true mark of an actor really leaving a dent, when the character's DNA is directly linked to their ability. My dad and I were watching the Jason Bourne films a few weeks ago, and my dad turned to me and had a suggestion. "These films would be better with Keanu Reeves in them," he said. If he said that before John Wick came out, you would have heard a loud gasp in the universe. Instead, he had a point.
Reeves makes Wick work and the movies tick. The 54-year-old actor does at least 95% of his stunts, including all the fights and gunplay. You can find videos online of him working with martial arts instructors for months and training with gunsmiths at the range. You don't hesitate for a second in believing he is this guy.
It's not what people would call Oscar worthy, because the Academy hates action films, and Reeves doesn't wear a prosthetic-but a great performance nevertheless.
There's little doubt when you watch the actor that you doubt his ability. Unlike previous hits he's starred in, John Wick belongs to Reeves. His first name may translate to "a cool breeze over the mountains," but I doubt any of Wick's enemies would agree.
Parabellum arrives on May 17, which is five months too late for me. Chapter 2 managed to not only be a necessary and rewarding sequel, but superior in many ways to the original. Instead of riding its coattails, the filmmakers made Wick's world bigger, more dangerous, and better. I want more, and so do you.
What started out as an indie film grew into a series that could run for a few more films. A wild idea by David Leitch, Stahelski, and Kolstad about a legendary hitman with a heart of gold seeking justice on the streets. A man with a truly unique set of skills laying waste to the criminal underworld. These guys managed to turn that classic setup into pure poetry on film.
May 17 can't come soon enough.