John Wick has a delightfully simple premise: Retired assassin lives okay life. Punk kid steals retired assassin’s car and kills his puppy (that was given to him by his recently deceased wife). Retired assassin un-retires and goes on a brutal rampage of revenge.
And honestly, when so many action movies are trying to be super smart with overly complex plots and schemes, "dude gets revenge for dead dog" is wonderfully simple. It harkens back to classic action movies like Die Hard, Predator, or even Commando where a straightforward plot serves primarily to deliver thrills. Die Hard’s concept of a New York cop as the sole defender of a captured skyscraper is fantastic and the film uses it — crawling in the ducts, elevator excitement, parking garage fun — to a wonderful extent. The titular alien of Predator makes for a challenging fight in the jungle. Kidnapping John Matrix’s daughter is just Commando’s excuse for Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill bad guys in inventive ways. A hallmark of these classics is a focus on the action over the effects. The Predator might be a stealthy alien, but its final showdown against Dutch is much more about the fight itself than it is a spectacle of effects. John Wick is a movie like these, replete with that personal sort of action, but, y’know, modern.
It certainly helps that John Wick is no slouch in the mythology department. John may be an assassin, but he’s not just any assassin: he’s a member of a secret society, a group with their own rules, currency, and even a sanctuary of a hotel in New York. We’re not told terribly much about this underground world, but we get to see much of it, and a lot more is certainly implied by characters’ responses and actions. The world feels massive, one with reams of untold stories that echo more the Marvel movies or a Sergio Leone western than a typical action movie. John Wick manages to perfectly combine mythmaking with 80s action thrills to create one of the best series of modern action movies.
It’s a step above similar contemporaries like The Expendables and The Transporter, two movies which are great, dumb fun with their own interesting worlds, but don’t quite deliver on the same exhilarating thrills that the John Wick movies do. The fights in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum are not only wonderfully choreographed, but they’re shot in long, wide shots that allow the audience to watch the fights play out and the skill of the fighters. Void of staccato jumpcuts, Parabellum plays out like a classic Jackie Chan flick, where there’s such emphasis on the artistry of the fight. It helps that these fights are straight up creative. Parabellum features a fight in the New York Public Library (books are lethal) and another where the combatants are surrounded by cases full of knives (which are quickly broken open and so ensues a knife fight). One of the final fights sees Keanu Reeves squaring off against Indonesian actors Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman — guys from the fantastic action movie The Raid. But it ain’t enough to just have these exceptional fighters throw down, Parabellum sets this fight in a glass room with glass walls, floors, and cases. It’s beautiful and decidedly unique.
So much of this relies on how slick the movie is. The John Wick movies have a very clear idea of what they are and it’s played to the hilt. Russian, Japanese, Latin, and Indonesian are all spoken in the movies and have subtitles — that often emphasize words by coloring them in neon purple and making them triple the size. The operators of the assassins’ network are dressed like ‘50s secretaries, but decked out in punk tattoos and piercings, but still using typewriters, switchboards, and old computers. I’ve seen the movies described as neo-noir, and that is certainly true, but toss in influences of every action genre — from anime to westerns to martial arts — and you’ve a fuller picture.
All this to say that John Wick fills a particular niche that we didn’t even know we need, a hyper-violent action movie that pairs its blood and guns with fantastic, imaginative craft. Give me more movies with this Wicky sensibility!