Mike at the Movies: Seen One John Wick, Seen ’Em All
by MIKE ORLOCK
The John Wick movie franchise began “reel life” in the imagination of Wisconsin native Derek Kolstad, a fledgling script writer in Tinseltown who had authored a couple of B movies for erstwhile Rocky villain Dolph Lundgren. He thought his idea about a legendary assassin who had retired from a world of assassins who all follow an arcane code of conduct tied to a chain of hotels (I kid you not) might make a nifty shoot-em-up: a cheap thrill at the cineplex or drive-in.
His script titled Scorn – optioned by Thunder Road Pictures, a small-time production outfit in Hollywood mostly involved in television work – caught the eye of Keanu Reeves, the megastar who was looking to do something with his pals Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, his action choreographers from the Matrix series, both of whom had ambitions to direct. Kolstad’s screenplay seemed perfect: fun, fast, violent and pulpy as freshly squeezed orange juice. The rest, as they say, is history.
John Wick made it to theaters in the late fall of 2014. It was modestly budgeted (most of its $20 million production cost went into paying Reeves’ salary) and had a lean, mean 101 minutes of screen time, including credits. When it proved to be a surprise hit, raking in nearly $100 million at the box office, a sequel or two was inevitable.
John Wick: Chapter 2, which hit theaters in February of 2017, doubled the budget and doubled the box office (while also adding 21 minutes of running time). John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, which became a major summer release in 2019, upped the budget past $75 million and doubled its box office again (while adding an additional 10 minutes of action).
So should we be surprised that John Wick: Chapter 4 (rated R for excessive violence) has waddled into theaters with a bloated budget surpassing $100 million and a running time of 169 eyeball-glazing minutes? At this rate of exponential inflation, John Wick: Chapter 5 (yes, there is a Chapter 5 in the works, along with a couple of spin-offs, a TV series, a comic book and a video game) will cost a king’s ransom and last longer than election season.
It used to be said of Westerns that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, and that can safely be said of John Wick in all its attenuated chapters. John, again played by Keanu Reeves with shaggy coiffure and a black suit, is an assassin earmarked for assassination by his former employers, a shadowy criminal cabal called the High Table, whose members hide out in cavernous villas and chichi hotels.
The bounty on John’s head keeps rising, apparently linked to the astronomical number of faceless assassins he methodically dispatches through karate, knives, swords and all caliber of guns, including one that literally incinerates the target like something out of Star Wars, as he travels the world seeking vengeance for the despicable murder of his dog – the key plot point from the original movie.
The plots of these movies don’t matter, though. What does matter is the quality of the kills splattered throughout extended action sequences linked together by a colorful cast of supporting characters, some old and some new.
Back are Ian McShane’s Winston, Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King and (briefly) Lance Reddick’s Continental Hotel concierge. (Reddick, a fine character actor who’s familiar to fans of such TV series as Bosch and The Wire, recently passed away, so this, his final film appearance, is especially bittersweet.)
New to the action are Shamier Anderson as Mr. Nobody, a tracker in the company of a killer dog that’s man’s worst nightmare; Bill Skarsgård as the Marquis Vincent de Gramont, the effete delegate of the High Table who’s assigned to find and kill John Wick with extreme prejudice, if not his outrageous accent; Clancy Brown as The Harbinger, the official ambassador of the High Table, who shows up between action scenes and locations with his imposing briefcase in tow; and Donnie Yen as Caine, an old friend and associate of John who’s hired by the Marquis to do the deed and who also happens to be – wait for it! – blind. Such is the world of John Wick, where the guy most likely to kill you is a friend who can’t even see you.
If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely already seen Chapter 4 or are planning to. If you’re just John Wick curious, however, I’d skip the “Chapters” and go straight to the original, which is readily available via home video or streaming. You’ll save yourself a few hours of “real life.”
You can thank me later.
In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball, authored three books of poetry and served as Door County’s poet laureate.