Who could have predicted where Mr. John Wick would land when he arrived in theaters in 2014 with the first movie where he would go to war against the entire world to avenge his beloved dog?
Indeed, the first chapter of this saga was a modest action production that could not even remotely imagine the immense success it would find with audiences.
From chapter to chapter, just as much has grown the budget to create more and more roaring and incredible shooting and fighting action scenes, now the trademark with which we recognize Mr. Wick, along with the tired but resolute face of Keanu Reeves in his impeccable bulletproof suit.
So we go from the 20 million needed to make the first movie to 40 million for the second, and finally to more than 70 million for each of the last two chapters of what has become a cinematic icon by now.
An avalanche of money that audiences have been more than happy to pay back with interest, year after year, punctually filling theaters to see how this unstoppable killer manages each time to emerge from situations of impossible numerical inferiority.
So what exactly is it, though, that makes this fictional crime universe so unique and fascinating?
Table of contents
Indeed, the first highlight of the saga is the charming Keanu Reeves, who has always been a familiar face to all lovers of the action and sci-fi genres.
We have all loved at least one of the many movies of his long and prolific career, be it the various Matrix or the tiny cyberpunk gem Johnny Mnemonic, as well as the adrenaline-fueled Speed or the more diabolical and darker The Devil’s Advocate and Constantine.
The Canadian actor concentrates all his experience and skill accumulated over many years of spectacular movies in the role of John Wick, born Jardani Jovonovich, simply the deadliest killer on earth.
Although he is the absolute star of this story, we know little about his past, except that as a boy, he emigrated from Eastern Europe and joined the Ruska Roma, a dangerous and respected Russian band of gypsies and criminals.
It takes a good three movies to get to this revelation and meet the leader of this gang, the stunning Anjelica Huston, who runs a theater where she trains both the dancers and her killers just as hard in a beautiful and ruthless union of art and murder.
A parallel we can see closely in every action sequence of this great franchise, where the dexterous Keanu twirls in a syncopated dance of death under the solid direction of Chad Stahelski.
John Wick is a character as simple as he is powerful, recalling the old movies’ anti-heroes of the past played by actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, or Lee Van Cleef.
Actors with little more than one or two facial expressions, always looking tired and bored, still undeniably charismatic and elegant, only to awaken like angry cobras when it came time for action.
After all, what else does a killer need to be?
I cannot repeat enough how much the real foundation of a movie’s success or failure lies in the director’s overall vision.
John Wick comes from the collaboration of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two former stuntmen with glorious careers in movies such as the celebrated The Crow with the late Brandon Lee or the Jason Bourne and The Matrix sagas.
It is right on the set where they first met Keanu Reeves, convincing him to participate in what was initially just a small action movie without so much ambition.
However, these two directors’ mastery of cohering the action and filming each scene with great style and elegance would make a considerable difference.
Moreover, the editing finally leaves space for us to enjoy the physical prowess of the protagonists with extended sequences where we are finally able to understand what the hell is happening on the screen, unlike other shooters where there is a cut-off every four seconds as if it were an MTV clip.
It was a return to the prouder, muscular roots for the action genre leading Leitch and Stahelski to found 87Eleven Action Design, a training school for stuntmen, eventually going their separate ways as independent filmmakers.
Stahelski inherits and continues the increasingly violent and spectacular John Wick odyssey, further expanding the potential of this movie universe open to thousands of narrative possibilities.
Alongside this, Leitch carries on his style with the equally sensational and entertaining Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Bullet Train; the latter not surprisingly in my recommendation among the best movies of 2022.
Both pay homage to the great Eastern and Western action masters such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, or even James Cameron and Walter Hill, setting new standards for the cinematic industry along with (perhaps even better) fellow Welshman Gareth Evans.
You are sorely mistaken if you thought being a professional hitman would finally free you from all kinds of regulations and constraints.
Indeed, this criminal universe follows a strict system of laws and conduct codes whose members must strictly adhere to it in order not to incur heavy reprisals.
Otherwise, besides cruel and humiliating punishments, the ultimate sentence may be excommunication, as is precisely what happens to John Wick at the end of the second movie of this saga.
These exiles from the community, called excommunicado, lose all the privileges and protections guaranteed by this freemasonry of assassins and also become a moving target for all their colleagues.
However, we discover that even excommunicadoes can still exploit some of the resources within this hidden world, such as valuable gold coins or markers.
The former is the officially recognized currency of exchange for buying all kinds of goods and services.
Although you will hardly find the quotation for these coins on international stock exchanges, any criminal can use them, for example, to avail himself of the services of a doctor in an emergency, supply from valuable gunsmiths, or dress up in luxury with some bulletproof suits.
A whole different matter, however, is to be made for markers, which symbolize a direct commitment and promise between two criminals.
The beneficiary can demand the discharge of the debt at any time and, in any way, on par with an unbreakable blood pact between two men of honor.
Once again, missing a marker’s pledge has severe consequences even for those sitting at the so-called High Table, the council of the world’s top twelve criminal bosses.
My dear John Wick, joining the army was not better at this point? You would have had fewer rules and fewer consequences as in your movies, don’t you think?
The Continental Hotels
In this movies, The Continentals are luxury hotels reserved for high-level criminals like John Wick, in which there is an equally inflexible and straightforward set of rules.
Indeed, within the confines of this neutral zone, it is strictly forbidden to conduct any kind of criminal activity, including violence or murder of other guests, providing a safe haven in which these murderers can relax from the considerable stress of their profession.
Moreover, inside these hotels are provided all the benefits and services we spoke of earlier, from doctors to gunsmiths or even night clubs reserved for criminals, all to be paid for strictly only with the aforementioned gold coins.
The managers of these hotels are the highest recognized authority inside: guests must comply without a word with their decisions and policies established within the walls of their little kingdom.
How many of these managers do we meet during John Wick’s movies?
Undoubtedly the most important is his close friend Winston, played by the awesome Ian McShane, master, and lord of the New York Continental.
By his side is always the faithful Charon, the concierge with the cold-hearted face of Lance Reddick, who will help old John out of trouble several times.
Then in the second chapter, we meet Julius, the boss of the Rome Continental, played by the legendary Franco Nero, who is equally friendly but determined to enforce the rules on his guests.
Finally, in the last movie, we find Hiroyuki Sanada as Shimazu Koji, manager of the Osaka Continental and Wick’s loyal friend, so much to risk everything to join his war against the High Table.
These hotels make up a separate story, a saga within the saga of which we know for sure, not coincidentally, a television series called, indeed, Continental is in development.
The underworld bosses
Having described the rules of this ruthless but highly organized criminal ecosystem, let’s look at some of the bosses leading the most dangerous gangs below the High Table.
In addition to the managers of the various hotels outlined earlier, on whom we undoubtedly place Ian McShane in the lead, we can start with the character of Viggo Tarasov, played by Michael Nyqvist.
Tarasov completely rules over the Russian mafia in New York and his stupid son will kill John Wick’s dog, starting the vengeful rampage of the Baba Yaga, a Russian nickname to describe The Boogeyman.
In the past, Wick wiped out the competition in town all at once, giving his gang unchallenged dominance in an impossible mission to finally gain the freedom to live with his wife, Helen.
Then enters the scene, Italian boss Santino D’Antonio, played by Riccardo Scamarcio, who brings the hitman back into the game by demanding the absolution of a marker and demanding Wick kill his sister Gianna, aka the beautiful Claudia Gerini.
The murder leads to a shift in power among the High Table chairs, but it also leads to a relentless hunt by all the killers worldwide for John Wick.
One of the few to help him remains the Bowery King, a New York City bum boss played by Laurence Fishburne, formerly a loyal friend of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix saga.
Their friendship goes back to when the killer spared his life, an episode for which King feels indebted despite having no marker.
We thus arrive at the final villain, the arrogant and merciless Marquis, who definitely wipes the slate clean around our hero but is then terrified of facing him in a duel according to the ancient traditions of the criminal code.
The other killers
I already know what you’re thinking: okay, it’s all clear so far, but still, is John Wick the only killer on the earth?
Again, there is plenty of choice among the alternatives, so let’s discuss the most fundamental to the plot.
In the first movie, we have the sweet Ms. Perkins played by Adrianne Palicki, an unscrupulous killer by which we finally understand what happens to anyone violating the Continental’s rules since she tries unsuccessfully to kill John inside the hotel.
More amusing, however, is the deaf-mute Ares, with the face of young actress Ruby Rose, a faithful ally and personal guard of Santino D’Antonio, who confronts Wick in hilarious confrontations, insulting him repeatedly with sign language.
Even more absurd is the killer of the third chapter, Zero, played by the athletic Mark Dacascos, the great protagonist of cult hits such as Crying Freeman and Brotherhood Of The Wolf.
Indeed, despite being an elite assassin, he is also a die-hard fan of John Wick, facing him relentlessly but at the same time constantly praising him for his courage and prowess.
Equally fanatical are his sidekicks Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, also already familiar to martial arts enthusiasts with the phenomenal two chapters of The Raid, an action flick by the earlier mentioned director Gareth Evans, which in many ways is even superior to the John Wick movies.
This brings us to the last and best enemy/friend of the whole saga, the blind assassin Caine played by the phenomenal Donnie Yen, the famous Ip Man of the eponymous saga about the unbeatable master who even taught the great Bruce Lee.
While I love Keanu Reeves so much, there is no comparison with Yen’s skill in the fight scenes, quick as lightning and graceful as a lethal classical dancer.
I don’t want to spoil this character any further since John Wick 4 is still fresh in theaters, so now that we’ve talked about the strengths that made this saga successful, why don’t we talk about the actual movies?
John Wick (2014)
Once upon a time, there was a seemingly meek and quiet man named John Wick, who was actually a former assassin who retired from the criminal world to live in peace with his beloved wife.
Yet sadly, fate had other plans for him, and when his wife died, she left John a tender puppy dog as a final gift of love, a symbol of their union and John’s need to love and protect something.
One fine day, while John is wandering around in his admirable 1969 Ford Mustang, a young scoundrel and son of a powerful mob boss wish to forcibly snatch his car.
So that night, the thug breaks into John’s house, steals his car, and, not satisfied, bludgeons his poor puppy to death.
Thereby old John Wick plunges back into the dark and violent world he had left behind, becoming once again the dreaded and legendary Baba Yaga.
He then begins to slaughter every member of the boy’s father’s gang of thugs, but all that blood doesn’t quench his thirst for revenge.
At the same time, he reconnects with all those old contacts who are amazed to see him back at work, including the friends he had at the Continental Hotel in New York.
However, not all of his colleagues are on his side, and when the boy’s father puts a million-dollar bounty on John’s head, some cannot resist the temptation.
Fortunately, some of these goons still put honor and friendship ahead of money, so the day of the final confrontation that the boss had tried so hard to avoid soon arrives.
John Wick – Chapter 2 (2017)
After avenging his beloved dog and recovering his precious car, John hoped to retire peacefully to his castle.
But once again, much to his misfortune, fate had other plans for him, even worse than the previous ones.
Thus at his door knocks the mysterious Italian prince named Santino D’Antonio, who reminds him that he must honor an ancient debt: a marker, a blood pledge that bound John to his last mission.
Whether he wants to or not, John is forced to repay the debt and embarks on a journey to a faraway land called Rome.
John’s mission is to eliminate Santino’s sister, Gianna, who aspires to sit on the powerful High Table.
Albeit with a heavy heart, the killer carries out his task but unleashes a storm of bloodthirsty warriors in his path, including the fierce guardian Cassian and the silent but deadly Ares.
Meanwhile, Santino proves to be a devious and disloyal prince by betraying John and putting a bounty on his head.
On his way back to New York, our hero then finds an endless horde of fellow murderers vying to try to kill him.
But all this blood will not save the wretched Santino, who has taken refuge in the sacred sanctuary of assassins, the Continental Hotel.
In the end, our beloved John succeeds in getting his revenge. Still, at a high cost: he is exiled from the realm of killers, becoming an excommunicated target among the fraternity of his former comrades.
And so, with a new dog at his side, Baba Yaga is definitely back and preparing to face a whole world of enemies.
John Wick 3 – Parabellum (2019)
Our hero had violated one of the most sacred rules of the criminal world: kill someone inside the untouchable temple called the Continental Hotel.
On his head hangs a $14 million bounty, which obviously makes every killer in town, including the shadows and trees, want to get their hands on John Wick.
Forced to run relentlessly and without rest, the unstoppable Baba Yaga returns to his roots and turns for help to the same woman who first initiated him into the subtle art of killing in choreographed sequence plans.
Snatching a free ticket, Wick earns a ride to the distant city of Casablanca, where the deadly assassin Sofia and her faithful pair of equally harmful dogs await him.
This time, however, John takes advantage of a debt to collect, asking the woman to help him meet the legendary Elder, the only assassin sitting above the High Table and the only one who can definitively solve his problems.
Besides his loyalty and in exchange for the cancellation of the bounty on his head, the Elder demands an extremely high price: returning to New York to eliminate his old friend and ally, Winston, the Continental Hotel manager.
Once again, Wick thus finds himself caught between two crossed fires: the assassins who still coveted the 14 million and the irresistible desire to protect his old friend.
The final battle, therefore, takes place within the walls of the Continental and this now deconsecrated sanctuary becomes the last bastion to defend against the endless armored soldiers of the High Table.
John Wick – Chapter 4 (2023)
Thus we come to the last chapter of this murderous odyssey, with our knight in the bulletproof suit returning to the desert to clarify a few things with the Elder.
Unable to find common ground, John simply shoots him in the head, finally unleashing the High Table‘s irrepressible wrath.
The twelve bosses in charge of every crime in the world then give free rein to the ruthless Marquis, who begins to destroy anything even remotely related to our hero to avenge the Elder’s death.
Paradoxically, this move brings even more allies to John’s side, including his old friend Bowery King and Winston, now unemployed since New York’s Continental has become a vast parking lot of smoldering rubble.
He suggests challenging the Marquis to a duel, who, according to the oldest traditions of the High Table, cannot refuse the confrontation.
However, to challenge him, he needs the support of the old Ruska Roma family, so he must travel all the way to Berlin to make a deal with the top brass of the gang that took him in at a young age when he was not yet a walking weapon of mass destruction.
Of course, every request has a price to pay, and in this case, it is to kill no less a member of the High Table, the plump but fighting John Killa.
Unfortunately, on John’s trail is also his old friend Caine, a blind assassin yet with a Jedi knight sixth sense that in no way prevents him from doing his job.
If and how old John will find peace, I want to leave it to you to find out, making your way along with him amidst even more enemies than the other three movies combined, obviously to be exterminated in the most improbable and spectacular ways possible.
Future of the saga
If we listen to the words of producer Erica Lee, who is enthusiastic about the excellent box office results of this saga, the future of John Wick movies extends far beyond just the persona of John Wick.
It is already planned for September this year for an Amazon Prime series set in the distant 1970s, long before the arrival on the scene of the ferocious Baba Yaga, and starring Colin Woodell, who will be the manager of one of the Continental Hotels.
Later, in 2024 it is equally sure that the spin-off titled Ballerina will arrive with a character played by the wonderful Ana de Armas who, again, according to Erica Lee’s words, we have already glimpsed in John Wick 3 during the scene in the Ruska Roma theater/refuge.
Without further blurting out or giving anticipations, the producer says there is at least one more spin-off in production, about which, however, they do not want to reveal anything.
There is certainly no shortage of characters and situations to delve into, so the web is already beginning to speculate on a possible chapter entirely devoted to the blind killer Caine, played by Donnie Yen, or on the fierce concierge of the Osaka Continental, Akira, with the young face of the beautiful Rina Sawayama.
Considering these two characters remain with a significant unfinished business upon the conclusion of John Wick 4, if this hypothesis is true, then we can only expect further escalation in the action frenzy of this incredible crime universe.