Oh shit, I thought. Here we go. It was 2014. I was in a movie theater, watching the first John Wick, a shockingly fun, brutal, and stylish low-budget action movie. Keanu Reeves, somehow moving like a bloodthirsty gazelle at age 50, had just spent the first half of the movie kicking and choking and head-shooting his way through a small army of anonymous assassins. And he had just come face-to-face with Kevin Nash. Until that moment, John Wick had appeared to be an implacable killing machine, a being who could not be touched. But here he was, about to fight a seven-foot ex-wrestler. I had spent years watching Nash, the former Big Daddy Cool Diesel, powerbomb people into dust. He wouldn’t beat John Wick in a fight. I knew that. But he would keep John Wick busy. But that’s not what happened in John Wick. Instead, Wick loomed out of the darkness, put a gun to Nash’s temple, complimented him on his weight loss, and told him to take the night off. Nash is in the movie for less than a minute. In that great little character moment, we’re still learning about John Wick, about the religious reverence that his fellow underworld denizens accord him. And in that scene, we find out that even a formidable presence like Nash has no chance.
Five years later, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum pays off that little bit of delayed gratification by giving Wick an even more imposing opponent. Chapter 3 begins mere minutes after when Chapter 2 ended two years earlier: Wick, tired and bleeding from a stab wound, on the run from New York’s battalions of kung-fu murder-masters, forced to fight his way out of a hostile metropolis. The first person he encounters, deep in the stacks of the New York Public Library, is a human obelisk named Eugene. Eugene is Boban Marjanović, a seven-foot-four NBA center from Serbia. (He’s a Maverick now; he was a Sixer when the film was released.) To watch Marjanović play basketball is to wonder who in the fuck let a Frankenstein’s monster out on the court. Even amid physical titans, Marjanović looks like an ogre. Next to regular-tall Keanu Reeves, he seems impossible. And John Wick kills him, in one minute, with a book.
I love everything about the Boban fight. Eugene knows John Wick’s reputation, but he figures, what the hell, it’s a lot of money. Marjanović, not an experienced actor, handles himself well, clearly enjoying being plunged into this absurd universe. He seems like he knows how to fight. He’s arrogant enough to make the library-joke shushing noise while ramming Wick’s head into the shelves. He gets a stabbing in, leading to a gnarly little self-surgery scene later in the movie. But he still gets halfway decapitated with a tome of Russian folktales. John Wick is still John Wick.
John Wick: Chapter 3 is a miracle of an action movie in so many ways. It’s not just that director Chad Stahelski thought to cast a monster like Marjanović as a one-scene heavy; it’s that he did that and then got a great little fight out of it. The movie is full of tiny, beautiful little action beats like that. Reeves bounces off of two cars in the same camera shot. He clotheslines two different people off of motorcycles in the same take. A dog vaults off of Halle Berry’s back to pull a gunman down from a balcony. A horse kicks a guy in the face twice, in quick succession. John Wick fires multiple bullets at the same part of a heavily armored bad guy’s bulletproof face mask before finally breaking through. John Wick wins a reloading race. John Wick wins an underwater gunfight. John Wick angle-slams a guy through a glass floor.
Stahelski was Reeves’ stuntman before he was his director, and watching Wick 3, it’s pretty clear that Stahelski, Reeves, and their elite crew of stuntpeople and fight choreographers came up with a list of impossible, mind-boggling action scenes and then constructed a movie’s worth of storyline around those scenes. That’s fine. In the Wick franchise, Reeves and Stahelski have built up a vast reservoir of audience goodwill by staging stunts like those. Nobody would expect anything less.
There are so many moments in Wick 3 that either build on old action movie tropes or subvert them. The movie gives us, for instance, the stock scene where someone gets shot and then turns out to be okay because of a bulletproof vest. In this case, though, the character who’s been shot is a dog. The film also gives us the scene where two combatants are struggling over a knife, one of them holding it inches from the other’s face. This time, though, we don’t get the customary last-second reversal. Instead, we watch in sheer physical agony as the knife slowly goes into the guy’s eye.
The guy with the stabbed eyeball, incidentally, is Tiger Chen, the great Chinese martial artist. Chen was a fight coordinator for Reeves on The Matrix. Years later, when Reeves made his directorial debut with the great little underground fighting flick Man Of Tai Chi, he constructed it as a vehicle for Chen.
Wick 3 is stocked with other global action-cinema greats and homages to that world. The incredible motorcycle knife-fight, for instance, is a reference to a just as nuts scene in the South Korean film The Villainess. The appearance of Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, from the great Indonesian Raid movies, is a beautiful promise that Wick will get to fight these guys. (He does, and it’s great.) And the film’s main heavy is Mark Dacascos, an action star who you will regard with great reverence if you’ve watched enough early-’00s B-movies but who you might not recognize otherwise. When we first meet Dacascos, he’s chopping up sushi, which I have to imagine is a jokey reference to his main gig as the host of the American version of Iron Chef.
Dacascos, it turns out, is perfect for that heightened John Wick world. He’s a fan. He wants Wick to know he’s a fan. But he also wants Wick to think of him as an equal. He insists, with his dying breath, that he and Wick might’ve been pals if things were different. A few times, Wick’s fearsome reputation within the assassin world saves his own life. The other fighters are sportsmanlike enough to give him time to recover, too prideful to kill their enemy when they’ve got the chance.
Dacascos loves being in the John Wick world. Everyone does. The entire Wick 3 cast seems to absolutely relish the chance to overact with great gusto, freed from the bounds of anything resembling realism. They all seem to be competing to see who can give the most ridiculous hard-boiled line reading. Halle Berry: “After this, we are less than even.” Anjelica Huston, through a wild Belarusian accent: “You honor me by bringing death to my front door.” Reeves’ old buddy Laurence Fishburne, clearly having the time of his life: “Well, sometimes you gotta cut a motherfucker!”
They can do all this because Keanu Reeves, the man at the center of all this spectacle, underplays everything so beautifully. In Wick 3, Reeves is still a superhuman death-dealer, but he’s beaten up and surly and groggy. He grunts and winces and barely gets off any cool lines. For the first time, he looks the tiniest bit vulnerable. His slumped, bearlike presence works in stark contrast to everyone else in the film, highlighting Berry’s coiled intensity, Dacascos’ wild-eyed stillness, Asia Kate Dillon’s rigid aristocratic carriage.
In a fight scene, though, Reeves is something to behold. Reeves is 55 now. The action of the first three Wick movies is supposed to take place over a mere few weeks, but it’s worth considering how long Reeves, arguably the greatest American action star of all time, can keep doing this. There will be at least one more Wick movie (scheduled to come out in May of 2021, almost exactly two years after Wick 3). We’re starting to get into that Tom Cruise/Mission: Impossible zone where you have to worry if Reeves is going to die on camera. But Reeves isn’t putting himself at risk surfing on underwater torpedos or whatever. He’s going out fighting.
The phrase “franchise fatigue” has come up over and over in discussions about Hollywood in 2019. Again and again, people have brought back old movie franchises that nobody needed to see reactivated, and those new franchise films keep failing. Some of those failures include some of our all-time great action series, like Terminator and Rambo. And even more recent series are starting to hobble, like the Fast & Furious films, which spun off the pretty fun but not great Hobbs & Shaw, or the bafflingly ongoing Gerard Butler Fallen joints. And yet John Wick stands tall.
Maybe John Wick is immune to franchise fatigue because it was never supposed to be a franchise. The first Wick was a minor miracle: a low-budget studio B-movie that snuck into theaters, impressed a whole lot of people, and earned itself a cult following. Each successive film has seemed like even more of a miracle. Stahelski and Reeves have widened their scope, made wilder action scenes, and captured bigger audiences each time. At this point, a John Wick movie is a dependable summer blockbuster. And so the franchise serves as a reminder that a whole lot of people love a great, nasty, hard-hitting action flick. This kind of thing can work, as long as nobody half-asses it. And in the John Wick movies, nobody half-asses anything.
Other noteworthy 2019 action movies: Wick aside, the Hollywood action slate has been bleak this year. The aforementioned franchise films all underperformed in one way or another. There were other failures, too. Ang Lee tried to make a high-tech spectacle out of Will Smith fighting his younger self in Gemini Man. Stuber attempted to revive the grisly old-school action-comedy with two appealing leads, but it blew the action part, committing the unforgivable sin of giving the shaky-camera treatment to an Iko Uwais/Dave Bautista fight. Liam Neeson destroyed any commercial hopes for his bleak, fun snowy-noir killfest Cold Pursuit by talking about his disturbing racist fantasies on the press tour. Nobody wanted to see Luc Besson go back to his old models-kicking-people schtick in Anna.
Hollywood action studios did offer some hope beyond Wick. Alita: Battle Angel overdid it on the freaky special effects and sometimes descended into noisy chaos, but it had a genuinely enjoyable and kinetic take on the old dystopian class-struggle model. And I liked Triple Frontier, the big-budget Netflix dad movie about ex-military badasses on a jungle heist mission.
I preferred lower-budget films, like the two movies that the straight-to-DVD B-movie master Jesse V. Johnson released this year. Triple Threat, for instance, united the Pan-Asian dream team of Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, and Tony Jaa to do a whole lot of kicking. Even better was Avengement, with Triple Threat villain Scott Adkins, one of our great screen fighters, as a scarred-up, metal-toothed beast at the center of a beautiful little Guy Ritchie-esque British crime story. The grimy, intense Jean-Claude Van Damme Euro-noir The Bouncer is worth your time, too.
In general, other countries had America beat this year. Vietnam had Furie, a primal thriller about a mother on a bloody quest to get her daughter back from human traffickers. Germany had Iceman, a prehistoric revenge saga so bare and elemental that it came presented in some ancient and extinct language, without subtitles. South Korea had the gory, gnarly, melodramatic The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil and Revenger. The Philippines had the extremely John Wick-esque Maria. Indonesia had the deeply silly but bloody Western Buffalo Boys, which really makes hissable villains out of the Dutch. China had Shadow, Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous and operatic wuxia epic, and Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, a satisfying spinoff of a great kung-fu blockbuster franchise with some great star turns from global-icon types. (Dave Bautista does wire-fu and powerbombs a guy to death in Master Z. Stuber would’ve been a better movie if it had either one of those things.)
There’s still time for some more great action movies to emerge in 2019. I’m writing this before getting to see the Michael Bay/Ryan Reynolds Netflix spectacle 6 Underground or the Chadwick Boseman cop movie 21 Bridges. Donnie Yen is going to fight Scott Adkins in Ip Man 4, which should rule. And a few movies that look potentially great—like Russia’s Why Don’t You Just Die!—aren’t available in the U.S. yet.
It’ll be fascinating to see where the genre goes in the future. Most of the desiccated franchises seem to be fully dead, though that won’t stop us from getting things like Bad Boys For Life next year. A lot of action filmmaking seems to be moving to TV, with shows like Cinemax’s Warrior and Netflix’s Wu Assassins. But the appetite for a pure, intense old-school action movie is still there, and the John Wick films prove it. Hopefully, somebody is taking note.