As a teacher who is tentatively inching towards his journeyman years, I’m starting to build up a rolodex of student archetypes. After teaching for a few years you learn to find folks who take on roles like “The Wannabe Class Clown,” “The Oddly Sincere Outsider” or simply “Brilliant but Lazy.” But one of my favorite archetypes is The Hard Worker. That student who probably doesn’t need to apply themselves as much as they do, because they’re already smart, but does so anyway out of some intrinsic drive to succeed. And on the off chance that one of my students ever reads this review, why yes, I am describing you. Good job! Anyway, I bring this up because the John Wick franchise, the fourth entry of which is currently in theaters, is one of the best action movie franchises in recent memory. And it got there by being The Hard Worker. In fact, I’d argue that the entire ethos of these movies, from their conception to the thematic heft of their surprisingly intricate narrative, is about a celebration of hard work. What do I mean? Well read on, and find out.
The John Wick franchise is largely the brainchild of two men. The franchise has been shepherded by a pair of stuntmen, named Chad Stahelski and David Leitch from the beginning. While the original film was written by action movie scribe Derek Kolstad, this pair has done a lot of the work to shape these movies. The goal from the beginning was simple. Create an action movie that puts the work on full display. The original John Wick is a surprisingly stripped down affair, especially compared to the opulence of future entries in the series. But it’s a movie that deliberately celebrates stuff that other Hollywood blockbusters take for granted, like Fight Choreography, and Stunt Work. Plus, in 2014, they made three very wise choices with the first movie and which would end up paying dividends throughout the next 9 years.
The first is that they cast Keanu Reeves in the lead role. Reeves is an action movie all-star, first becoming famous for movies like Point Break and Speed where he became essentially a younger, prettier alternative to someone like Bruce Willis’ John McClane. But later in the same decade, Reeves would redefine the action movie by starring as Neo in the Wachowski siblings’ gonzo, sci-fi epic The Matrix. That movie, which blended a high concept, neo-noir techno sci-fi plot with action inspired by anime like Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong action movies, completely reshaped the landscape of American blockbusters at the end of the 20th century. Incidentally, Reeves’ stunt man on the first Matrix movie was an enterprising young stunt man named…Chad Stahelski. What’s more, Reeves is famous for doing a lot of his own stunt work and even learned martial arts as part of his preparation to play Neo. Even in 2014, half of the advertising for the first movie was behind the scenes footage of him training in tactical combat courses or practicing stunt work for months. This reputation, as a bona fide action star whose physical action chops were well-known among aficionados carries over into the movie, where Reeves plays the titular role. Basically, we don’t need to be told this guy’s a badass with a soulful side, because like…of course he is, it’s Keanu Reeves. In the movies, John Wick is a nigh-legendary assassin in the criminal underworld. Nicknamed “The Baba Yaga” (a reference to the night witch of Russian folklore), Wick is known as an unstoppable force who can (and will) go anywhere and do anything to kill his target. At the start of the first movie, he’s out of the crime game and mourning the loss of his wife Helen. However, when a bunch of Russian street toughs break into his house, steal his car and kill the puppy his wife left him to help him to grieve, John embarks on a bloody odyssey through the underbelly of a mysterious and highly unorthodox New York to exact his revenge.
The second wise move that the first movie made was to do a lot of worldbuilding, but leave a lot of it up to inference. In that first film, after John decides to kill the men who killed his dog we see him unearth a mysterious cache in his basement, including a stack of strange gold coins. He then proceeds to a strange hotel in New York called The Continental where he purchases not only a room but various assassin-adjacent services with those coins. This is good worldbuilding. We, the audience, are never explicitly told what the coins are, how they’re earned or what their actual value as currency entails. But we see them used throughout that first movie and organically understand their worth. Each subsequent film has built upon this strange criminal underworld. While the first movie was mostly just set in New York, subsequent movies have added everything from Rome to Morocco. John Wick 4 continues this tradition by setting the bulk of its action in Osaka, Berlin and Paris, all of which are shot beautifully and in distinct styles. One of the core tenants of these movies seems to be “audiences should always be aware of exactly where everything is.” Whether that means tightly choreographed fight scenes or making sure that every locale has a unique, immediately recognizable style, the production team has done a ton of work and it always shows on screen. For a franchise and setting that’s not an adaptation from a previous medium, it’s been really cool to see them create this world.
Especially because the world of John Wick doesn’t make sense. Or rather it shouldn’t make sense. It’s a world where everyone’s a hitman, every church is the headquarters for a different, ethnic criminal organization, the homeless are a network of spies, and the world is run by a mysterious organization of criminal kingpins called The High Table. It’s baroque in the best way, a world that doesn’t make any sense in a logistical sense (like seriously how do people organize transportation between all of these places in these movies), but it makes sense in a filmic way. Plus there’s some subtle classist elements. The bad guys, the High Table and their representatives are all avatars of fabulous wealth. They all come with ostentatious titles like The Marquis, The Adjudicator or The Harbinger, to make themselves sound even more important. Meanwhile, John, the other good guys and even all the bad guys who are on his level (i.e. the really dangerous henchmen) are all basically skilled laborers. They’re highly trained specialists with a job to do and by the fourth movie, they all feel trapped by a system that’s pressing down on them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the secret Marxist action film franchise leftists have been craving or anything, but it’s a really cool element that really solidifies in this fourth entry.
The third and final decision the filmmakers made in 2014, a decision that’s still paying dividends was to go out of their way to cast some really good, hardworking character actors in that first movie. Most notably in that first movie, Keanu Reeves was joined by Ian McShane of Deadwood fame, Lance Reddick (Rest in Peace), another HBO alumni most famous for his work on The Wire and all-round Swedish crazy man Peter Stormare. Character actor is a term that generally refers to supporting actors who are known for playing outlandish or unique personas. After all, if you need a dry does of British wit coupled with quiet ruthlessness, who better to employ than Ian McShane? Do you need a man who is basically the earthly embodiment of authority and precision? Lance Reddick might as well have been engineered in a lab to play those roles. Future movies would take this idea and run with it. The second film added rap artist turned actor Common and perennial action starlet Ruby Rose to the ensemble. By the third movie, the John Wick franchise reached its final incarnation as a celebration of the modern action genre, international or otherwise. This was typified by its inclusion of Yaya Ruhian and Cecip Arif Rahman as a pair of martial arts heavies who have a spectacular fight with Wick in the third act. The pair are most famous in action film circles as the stars of The Raid movies, a pair of films that explored pencak silat, an Indonesian fighting style. Their inclusion, alongside Hollywood mainstays like Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos was a nod to action film fanatics. It was more or less the filmmakers saying “look guys, we’re action fans too and we’re going to use this platform to celebrate our medium.” The fourth film ups the ante in both regards. Like, how has it taken this long to get Clancy Brown, Scott Atkinson or Hiroyuki Sanada in one of these? Those dudes are great and add a sense of gravitas to everything they’re in. And for John Wick’s final rival we’ve got the legendary Donnie Yen. Mainstream Hollywood fans might remember Yen as the blind Jedi master from Star Wars: Rogue One, but action movie aficionados will know that Yen is basically a saint of the genre. Not only a genuine martial arts master in his own right, Yen is most famous for the Ip Man series, a hugely popular series of Chinese Kung-fu movies that arguably did for Kung-fu in the early 2000s what John Wick has been doing for American action movies in the 2010s and beyond.
So all of that and I’ve only mentioned the newest movie sparingly. How is it? Well it’s really good. I’m not without gripes. The movie has a runtime of two hours and 49 minutes, which is pretty ridiculous for a series that started out by celebrating stripped down, no-nonsense action movies. The one thing this franchise should try its best to avoid is becoming indulgent. The first movie won audiences over with it’s slick, paired back production, so it needs to stay lean and hungry. By all means, keep the ostentatious set design, it helps to sell this world, but make sure that ostentation doesn’t bleed over into the actual film itself. Then again, this movie is basically its own Endgame, bringing in well-known actors and treating them as a big deal despite never showing up. So like, on one level I get it. But on the other hand, there’s a few plot cul-de-sacs in this movie that are head-scratching. They’re clearly in there to set up action sequences (and the action sequences are as top flight as ever) but a few of them actually end up contradicting pretty important moments from the last movie. Lastly, I’m torn. Without going into spoilers, John Wick 4 feels like a pretty definitive end for the character, a modern day action icon who, by the end of this entry in his franchise has essentially been ascended to the status of Action Movie Jesus. Reeves clearly has a deep appreciation for this character but I think the time has come for him to step aside. That said, I’m not ready to be done with this world yet. I want more, whether in the form of spinoff films or television. This franchise was built to celebrate an action icon of the past, but now it’s time to look ahead and celebrate the rising stars of the genre. What’s more, this movie provides two potential candidates. Either Shamier Anderson’s Tracker or Rena Sawayama as Akira would make exciting new protagonists through which the audience could experience this criminal universe.
This year’s Oscar darling was Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, a drama about intergenerational strife wrapped in the aesthetic of a sci-fi action movie about the multiverse. It’s still kind of amazing to me that the movie to take away Best Picture and win 7 out of its 12 nominations featured multiple kung-fu action scenes, including one where all parties are fighting over a butt plug. Pure action flicks have always existed in a sort of filmmaking ghetto. A more snobbish film critic would say that the John Wick films have ‘elevated’ the genre but I think it’s more than that. The action genre isn’t one where you can fake it. Put up a green screen, put the guys in mocap suits and hire an FX team but eventually you need a stunt man going over safety instructions and a fight choreographer mapping out how the punches and kicks land. Going all the way back to the silent era and physical comedians like Buster Keaton, good action, whether in Best Picture Winners or direct-to-DVD schlock doesn’t cut corners. It takes time, effort and lots of bruised stuntmen, but the art is clearly visible on screen. And I think it’s super cool that we’ve got films like John Wick 4 around to remind us of that fact.