How 'John Wick' Continues to Raise the Stakes

The Keanu Reeves franchise, which already has a fourth film in the works, isn't following the path of a traditional action series.
Courtesy of Lionsgate

[This story contains spoilers for John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum]

You might think by the third time around that seeing retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) nail headshot after headshot would lose its novelty. But with John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum cleaning up at the box office with $57 million domestically on opening weekend and a fourth movie already set for 2021, it’s clear cinema’s latest action sensation still has the killing touch.

The John Wick franchise provides an interesting case of escalation. Many action franchises, ones that don’t rely on a sci-fi or fantasy element and instead make due with a man and a gun, struggle with diminishing returns. But the John Wick series has only gotten better with each entry and added to its fan base. The box office receipts are proof, and while $57 million may seem modest in comparison to the summer’s other blockbusters, the first entry John Wick (2014) made $43 million during its entire lifetime run. So what’s the secret to Mr. Wick’s success? How did an under-the-radar film that seemed destined to be an underperforming cult classic launch one of the great action film series?

The first entry, directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, took a simple premise, one that we’ve seen many times over the years and not only made it stylish, but earnest. A retired killer coming back for one last job of vengeance is a story we’ve seen told across westerns, samurai and action films around the globe. But John Wick is different, in part because that vow of vengeance is taken because of the brutal murder of a wife, child or partner. It’s taken because of a puppy. On the surface, a hitman plowing through the criminal underworld to get justice for his murdered puppy, given to him by his deceased wife as a way to combat his loneliness, seems a bit silly. But because Reeves plays it so straight, with a kind of tired and wounded vulnerability that makes him endearing, we buy it. And if we’re dog lovers (and who isn’t?) then we buy it even more. But beyond a mission that could only happen in the movies, and action sequences from the stunt coordinators behind The Matrix and it’s sequels, John Wick goes the extra mile with its world-building — a political hierarchy of assassins and strict rules. The first film baits us with the idea that we’re seeing just another well-executed action film, but it hooks us with the foundations of a larger world, one that becomes increasingly important to its sequels.

It’s easy for action movie sequels to get into the routine of just doing the same thing on a bigger scale or a different location. Rambo III (1988) took John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) out of the jungles of Vietnam and into the deserts of Afghanistan. Die Hard 2 (1990) took John McClane (Bruce Willis) out of a skyscraper and brought him to an airport. Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) didn’t even have the courtesy to give us another Keanu Reeves performance and instead teamed Sandra Bullock’s Annie with Jason Patrick. In Taken 2 (2012) it’s Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) wife who gets taken instead of his daughter. And after Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) protected the president at the White House, he went to London to protect a coalition of global leaders in London Has Fallen (2016). Even if somewhere in the series an entry deviates from the norm, there’s at least one or two occasions where the narrative circles right back around to where we started, albeit with more explosions and a higher body count. Ultimately, these characters change very little, adding a few more wrinkles and scars, but always remaining constant.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) dispatches with any notion that the sequel will be more of the same before the title card even hits the screen. Wick facing off against the brother of Viggo Tarasov would have served the entire narrative of a lesser film. Instead, Stahelski’s film places greater emphasis on the world-building of the High Table, contracts, and old debts. John Wick: Chapter 2 takes Wick on a mythological journey through Heaven and Hell as represented by the classical art and statues of Rome to the modern art installation of mirrors in New York. The budget, action sequences and cast of characters are all increased. But Chapter 2 takes us on a very different thematic journey from the first film, with John Wick’s need for vengeance replaced by a psychological examination of his own need for violence. Chapter 2 is invested in John Wick’s inability to fit neatly into the frame of a hero, suggested by the off-center angel wings behind him in Rome, and his white shirt that grows increasingly bloody.

By the time we got to the announcement of Chapter 3, expectations were already high. We weren’t just expecting better fights and stunts, but a story that felt like a true thematic next step. Audiences had come to realize that the series was more than just another action franchise, it was the promise of seeing something new and meaningful. Chapter 3 delivers on the promise, taking John Wick on a spiritual journey, a literal trip through the dessert where he is tempted by the devil.

The first film considered John Wick as a boogeyman, one whose love and possessions drove him to haunt the criminal underworld. The second film examined him as a anti-hero of Greek myth, forced to venture into the underworld. And the third film establishes him as a Christ-like figure, one who is betrayed and left for dead with the promise of a resurrection in Chapter 4. At the end of the film’s second act, Wick is asked why he wants to survive. Why not just accept death? And he responds that he lives so he can keep his wife’s memory alive, immortalizing her through the sheer will of his existence. It’s a poignant moment that speaks to the entire franchise. The John Wick films were never simply about a man with a gun, but an assassin whose journey from specter, to myth, to martyr is founded on the idea of immortality in all of its forms. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a war on standard franchise escalation that ultimately showcases that the journey of its central character is a path toward ascension, one carved and punctured through knives and bullets, and one that manages to keep us invested at every turn.