“You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths”, says Winston to John in the first John Wick film, but he ignored the warning and so will we. It’s going to be a bumpy, rain-soaked night…
Since the first film, the world’s most successful hitman has got through one wife, two dogs, several cars, a bumper box of laundry detergent and about 200 opponents: the assassins paid to take him out killed for their trouble with knives, gunshots to the head, and, most famously, pencils.
And while the series is known for its action, it’s also eminently quotable. My favourite line in the whole franchise – “So you can either hand over your son or you can die screaming alongside him!” – is both a departure for Wick and an excellent example of what he stands for. It’s shouted by the hitman as he’s tied to a chair by his ex-boss Viggo, the latest move in a cat and mouse game across New York.
The supposedly retired John Wick has pursued Russian crime boss Viggo’s whiny and murderous son Iosef relentlessly – after Tarasov Jnr roused the sleeping giant by killing his puppy and stealing his car, only a few days after the death of John’s wife Helen.
It’s one of the few times we get to see red-hot rage in a man who long ago learnt to be, to quote Viggo himself, “a man of focus, commitment, sheer will”. But it’s also a perfect encapsulation of the character whose actions have given him deservedly legendary status in the criminal underworld where he used to reside.
John may not know, at that, point, how he is going to get himself out of that chair, overcome the men with him and escape to kill Iosef. But John knows it’ll happen, Viggo knows it’ll happen and we know it’ll happen.
That quote from Viggo could also refer to the directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, writer Derek Kolstad, and Keanu himself – who have created that rare thing, a standalone franchise that’s entertaining, intelligent, and action-heavy, without being a comic book adaptation or full of random boobs.
I have a dog called Daisy and being British love a downpour, so let me be your guide to the weird world of John Wick.
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| Movie recap | John Wick | John Wick: Chapter 2| John Wick: Parabellum | Chapter 4? | Wick’s World | The underworld | Hot and cold |Destiny |Clean edges (until they bleed out) | Gods and monsters | It’s personal | Faaamily | Say it again | The colour | The pets, the rain, the 5-minute characters | Wait, the fights? | Read more | Buy the films |
Despite three films and more injuries to one man than seen in a whole series of Casualty, in Wick World it’s STILL only 2014.
John Wick takes place over a few days. John Wick: Chapter 2 follows almost directly on from the first with John trying to get his stolen car back from the Tarasovs, before he heads to Rome to fulfil a blood oath. And the third starts immediately after Chapter 2 finishes, taking John to Africa in a desperate attempt to free himself from the contract put on him in Chapter 2.
After five years enjoying life on the outside with Helen, John is pulled back in to the criminal underworld after she dies. We see her in flashback, and after her death a present arrives from her: a puppy called Daisy. Sadly Daisy doesn’t last long, as Iosef (Alfie Allen), breaking in with his friends to steal John’s prized Mustang, also kills the dog.
Wick’s response is to dig up his underworld guns, gold coins and suit from under a layer of cement in his basement and go after Iosef. He thinks he can do the job and leave, despite umpteen warnings that it’s impossible. Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) heads up the Russian mafia in New York, and used to employ Wick – it’s thanks to an “impossible task” Viggo set John when he said he wanted to leave to get married that the Tarasovs control so much crime in the city.
The underground world-building starts here: we’re introduced to the Continental, a hotel for assassins run by manager Winston (Ian McShane); the gold coins used to buy services; and the dinner reservations that are code for requesting a clean-up team to come over with Windolene and clingfilm and clear your house of blood and bodies.
John kills Viggo and Iosef, and plenty more besides, with the film finishing on the docks with a dark and rain-drenched showdown. He then breaks into a pet shelter and gets himself a new dog (which never has a name).
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John Wick: Chapter 2
Viggo’s brother Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare) is moving their whole operation out of New York, just as John comes looking for his car. There’s a sense, at the end of the first film, that the old guard is dying off (literally!) and that’s pushed at the start of Chapter 2.
John still thinks that with his car back he can leave this life once more, but he’s visited by Santino D’Antonio, a vile crime lord who has John’s Marker. This is a blood oath from the night of that “impossible task” when D’Antonio helped him out. Now he’s come for his payback and demands John kill his sister Gianna, so he can have her place at the High Table, the ruling elite who head up the world’s crime syndicates.
After initially refusing and seeing his house burnt to the ground, John travels to Rome to carry out the task; after which D’Antonio puts out a $7 million contract on him for killing his sister. Also determined to kill Wick is Cassian (Common), Gianna’s bodyguard: theirs is a rivalry of equals, an idea that expands as the films do.
It’s also in Chapter 2 that we meet Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, an off-grid crime lord with an army of homeless people acting as his eyes and ears around Manhattan, and a flock of carrier pigeons delivering messages.
John eventually kills D’Antonio on the New York Continental premises, despite Winston pleading with him to walk away; he’s declared Excommunicado, which may sounds like a Western theme tune sung by Axl Rose but means John can no longer use any of the services provided by the network of Continental hotels around the world.
Wick is given an hour’s head start across Central Park with his dog, as the air starts to sound with ringtones delivering news of the contract – still actionable despite D’Antonio’s death, and doubled by the High Table. So many calls that it turns out everyone except me, Oprah and Jesus are actually assassins waiting for their next job.
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John Wick 3: Parabellum
John may only have 60 minutes but he gets a lot done in New York, including trips to the library and the doctor and finding someone to look after the dog, like me in the hour before I take the children on holiday.
The library trip involves killing an opponent with a book, entirely believable if you’ve ever dropped one of the later Harry Potter novels on your foot.
This is a bright, funny, audacious and sometimes bloated threquel, with an increasingly preposterous plot, yes even more preposterous than the previous two.
There are more characters, including Asia Kate Dillon’s po-faced Adjudicator, here to tell everyone off for breaking the rules; Anjelica Huston’s Director, running her fiefdom from a theatre where she trains dancers and fighters; and Halle Berry as Sofia, manager of the Casablanca Continental, who has to help John as he has her Marker.
John, still with a bounty on his head, needs to get to The Elder, who sits above even the High Table and is the only one who can free him.
Staggering through the desert before being carried in to The Elder’s tent on a camel, John is already broken but still has to prove himself by chopping off his own ring finger and handing over his wedding ring. (This is why you should always carry hand cream.)
Back in New York, Wick teams up with Charon (Lance Reddick) to defend the Continental, which has been deconsecrated and is overrun with assassins. The Adjudicator announces a parley, whereupon Winston shoots John who falls over the wall into the street far below – he’s rescued by the furious Bowery King, who’s been maimed for refusing to submit to the High Table’s demands and wants John to join him in a war.
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John Wick: Chapter 4?
It’s already got a release date: May 21, 2021. Hopefully it’ll start with John rested and recovered, and maybe with a metal finger like Holly Hunter in The Piano.
Or maybe it will go all Doctor Who (I’ve always thought Keanu was actually the immortal Time Lord). And like the Doctor after destroying the planet Gallifrey and locking the Time War, Wick will reappear, now The Last Of His Kind, having terminated the High Table and the Continental.
And then just like The Ninth Doctor he’ll meet a nice blonde lady only this one will be really good at laundry <waves while stroking my new state-of-the-art washing machine, which has a special tiny door where you can add that sock you dropped on the stairs>.
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This is a world that is both ridiculous and entirely believable, and I increasingly feel that we’re the ones being half-mocked for falling for it. We’re like Wick’s opponents, complicit in their own deaths. Still, what a way to go.
Jahhhn Wick is, as the Bowery King mockingly calls him, man, myth, and legend in the crime underworld. It’s a world with only two rules, which you break at your peril:
- No assassin business is to be conducted on Continental premises.
- All Markers must be repaid.
We are the Muggles of this world, bumping up against it at times but otherwise either unaware of its existence or trying not to see, out of the corner of our eyes. It’s a world expanded from assassins and their crime bosses in John Wick to more of a refuge for the world’s unwanted and unloved (plus some psychopaths).
This is a world that’s deliberately disruptive, blending the old and the new in tech, weaponry and morals. The administration offices look like something out of the Victorian era, with added ’50s-style tubes for sending paperwork upstairs, and 1980s Commodore computers.
Inkings and piercings abound on the elegantly dressed employees. It’s an underground world based on the real world’s old-fashioned rules and surface courtesies, but populated by the people it rejects.
Viggo, in the first film, also has an old-fashioned air, singing melancholic Russian folksongs into the fire and literally dusting off an old book of phone numbers before calling John on his landline.
The gold coins, which to British eyes look distractingly similar to the chocolate money you get in net bags at Christmas, are used to pay for services, though the exchange rate remains a mystery.
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Hot and cold
Wick may be a coldly relentless killer (except where puppies are concerned), but there’s no denying that as a man he’s hot, hot, hot.
He only has eyes for Helen though, and you just know the stony-faced answer if a hot female assassin asked him if that was a gun in his pocket or he was just pleased to see her.
He’s also worked out the benefits of a capsule wardrobe. When he’s not in jeans and a casual top, accessorised with blood splodges and a pocketful of gold coins, John is usually in his trademark black suit (lining: tactical), accessorised with blood splodges and a pocketful of gold coins.
Would the films have worked so well if he was a bit of a minger? I doubt it.
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A comfort blanket for us, a death sentence for Viggo’s son. Fate is big in John Wick, unsurprising in a world filled with killers trying to absolve themselves from blame.
Despite John’s assurance that he’s only back for a visit, he admits he never deserved the good life Helen offered him. His return to the fold – even though he claims it’s only temporary – is almost pre-ordained.
As soon as Viggo hears what Iosef has done to John he knows what will happen and that there’s nothing he can do to stop it. As a father, and a gangster who can’t back down, he goes through the motions of trying to thwart Wick, but he is aware from the start that stopping John is also an impossible task.
And it’s in the stars – literally – in John Wick 3, as Wick staggers up a freezing sand dune in the desert in the middle of the night, and looks into the twinkling sky; this is the only way he can find the path to the one man who can free him from the contract on his life.
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Clean edges (until everyone bleeds out)
One of the most striking aspect of John Wick is its clarity. It’s not a messy film, and sounds and looks as if it knows what it wants to be. Where Parabellum enjoyably sprawls, John Wick is neat and tough.
There’s a sharpness and freshness to everything. Even the myth-making is, at this point, pared down: Baba Yaga, the Boogeyman, the inevitability, the Continental rules, his dark suits. There aren’t even that many characters; this is a fight between Viggo and John, two ageing bears in a changing world.
The subsequent films become progressively more sprawling, but that first self-contained gem is 101 minutes of joyfully curated bleak perfection.
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Gods and monsters
John Wick’s exploits are spoken about with such awe and reverence you half-expect the whole street to do a collective gasp every time he pops to the shops for a pint of milk. His relentlessness and skill are backed up with that one story, the time he killed three men in a bar with a fucking pencil – and then in Chapter 2 he does it all again.
That “impossible task”, completed so he could exit that world and get married, has also become legend (we don’t need a prequel as it’s actually Constantine).
He hardly needs nicknames, he’s scary enough as it is, though that hasn’t stopped people re-naming him: The Boogeyman, The Man Who’s Sent To Kill the Boogeyman (wasn’t that a Travis album?) and Baba Yaga. She’s a witch from Russian folklore who lives in a forest, an ambiguous figure in terms of good and evil – just like John.
The myths are bolstered in this bleak yet fevered world by religion, so often used to prop up morally dubious enterprises. Its symbolism is everywhere. In Parabellum this is overt: the deconsecration of the New York Continental, with Winston the erring archbishop whose competing fiefdom needs cutting down to size.
In Chapter 2, Wick, appearing in the mirror behind his victim Gianna in Rome, looks like an angel of death – she even calls him the emissary of the devil. And who can forget that movie’s best joke? Rome Continental manager Julius’s confidential enquiry to Wick as they relax in their comfy chairs: “are you here for the Pope?”.
By Parabellum his opponents are also admirers (“I gotta say, I’m a pretty big fan!” says Zero, sent to kill him) and it wouldn’t surprise me if Chapter 4 world-building includes the John Wick calendar and a tribute act.
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…the first film, anyway – and not just for John. It’s a tale of two old timers brought low by the end as they sit propped up and bleeding, the rain pouring down. “What happened John, we were professionals, civilised…” asks Viggo as he’s dying, but it’s gone from smart suits and rules to two men brawling to the death.
Viggo, previously smartly if brashly dressed in his red shirts and matching handkerchiefs, has always had people to do his dirty work for him. But before his final showdown with John, we see him literally rolling up his sleeves to torture fellow assassin and John’s erstwhile friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe) whose failure to kill Wick has resulted in Iosef’s death.
John is certainly grief-stricken throughout the trilogy – we see he’s been cuddling his pillow all night when Daisy jumps onto the bed, and he tells Viggo that Daisy was a conduit for him to grieve “unalone” – but I don’t think these films have turned out to be simply about grief per se.
To me, the first film is about the unfinished business between these two men, and Wick’s anger at his wife’s death. Because if someone dies of an illness, who do you rage at? And in later films, his anger is at himself for being unable to leave his violent, murderous underworld family behind. Speaking of which…
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Yes let’s get all Eastenders for a moment. You can’t choose your family and they’re hellish hard to escape. We finally discover in Parabellum that John Wick is Jardani Jonovich from Belarus, an orphan taken in by the Russian mafia and trained to be an assassin. Once his history is known, the impossibility of John ever really escaping is much starker.
The emphasis on blood Markers feeds into this idea of family. For a long time John shies away, hating the fact that even as he dips his toe back in to the murky waters of the underworld everyone still knows his name.
It’s a family filled with relationships both good and toxic, and Chapter 1 starts it off. They may have been similar ages but Viggo seems like a father figure to John – and to Viggo, John is the son he wished Iosef would have been.
Winston too is the ultimate ’70s parent in his affection for Wick, hands-off but secretly helpful, and willing the assassin to succeed.
Every relationship in the underworld is tarnished with self-protection and selfishness, you can’t exist there without it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for something approximating friendship or even family love.
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Say it again, John
Ideas, scenes and dialogue are re-referenced throughout the movies. It mostly works really well – they’re great fun to spot and also serve to make the structure of that world feel more solid.
The repeated myths about Wick are a delight, imparted with increasing awe and veneration, partly because of the twists added to each iteration. In the second film Abram’s henchman already knows all about the pencils, bored like a kid whose dad won’t stop repeating the same old anecdote. Later we get the ultimate pay-off for such a fan favourite legend, as John wields them as weapons once again.
In the same film Jimmy the policeman appears when John’s house has been blown up by Santino D’Antonio, and while their conversation initially mimics that from the first film (“hello Jimmy” and “you workin’ again?”), John then stops it in its tracks by walking away.
Viggo famously explains to his son that he’s now a dead man walking, informing him that “John Wick is a man of focus. Commitment. Sheer will”, with every pause cutting to John smashing up the concrete in his basement to get to his stash of weapons and gold coins underneath. Abram Tarasov repeats it in Chapter 2, a delicious performance from another old bear (Peter Stormare looks like an aged Russian tsar) which hovers between authenticity and parody.
It doesn’t always work. The oft-repeated “be seeing you” (Said by Viggo to John as he dies in John Wick, repeated in Chapter 2 by Ares as she dies, and later by others) just becomes tiresome, like when you bump into someone in the supermarket, have a quick catch-up, say goodbye then see them again in every aisle, until you’re forced to hide behind an enormous tower of 15 different types of sourdough (well, if it’s Waitrose) until they’ve gone.
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It’s often dark in John Wick films and often raining. The New York scenes are like those wax crayon pictures you do as a kid, covering a page with bright colours, adding a layer of black over the top then scratching off bits to real the rainbow underneath.
The skyscrapers look like they’re decorated with jewels: red, blue, pink and green. It’s cold lighting, adding to the sense of aloneness in a world that doesn’t care if any of these people live or die.
But the two colours that figure most strongly are blue and orange. Blue is a theme that begins in John Wick and is then referenced in the Roman catacombs of Chapter 2 and the medieval-looking rooms of the Continental in Parabellum.
Meanwhile Helen in flashback is always warm and smiling, often bathed in an orange glow (their home after her death is pale with dull early morning light coming in the huge windows).
Parabellum also takes John to the desert, where he staggers up an orange dune before collapsing under an inky blue sky; the final hand-to-hand combat fights in the Continental at the end of that film also take place against huge screens of bubbling colour.
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The pets, the weather, the laundry, and the minor characters who pop up for five minutes and still get a poster
It never rains but it pours for John Wick, adding to the nihilistic gloom. Until it flips to the desert heat in Parabellum – by the end he must be almost desiccated.
And poor Daisy. In the first film she’s brutally murdered by Iosef and his cronies. Her demise becomes a motif in the later films: “all this over a puppy?” Angelica Huston asks him in Parabellum. Even the opening credits for Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch, point out he’s the man who killed off John Wick’s dog.
The second dog remains nameless and is often palmed off on Charon for sake-keeping. One hopes that like Charon himself, who finally gets to show his mettle in Parabellum, the Dog With No Name will, in Chapter 4, get both a chance to shine (for which read: bite John’s opponents in the knackers) and his own poster.
Parabellum also has Sofia with her killer dogs, one of whom gets shot by yet another crime lord, Berrada, one of in-the-film-for-five-minutes characters. His attempted murder of Sofia’s pet pooch leads to the fabulous exchange between Sofia and John, as bullets whizz around them: “He shot my dog!” she shouts. “I get it!” he shouts back.
Look, we’re back to washing! (sorry, it’s my favourite household task). You can understand why John favours dark coloured clothes if you’ve ever tried to get blood out of a crisp white shirt. Even Charon, a concierge who can fulfil any guest request and wield an assault rifle at the same time, accepts defeat when faced with John’s post-kill clothing. “How good’s your laundry?” asks John. “I’m sorry to say that no one’s that good” he replies.
That’s it! Ok wait I think I forgot something. Oh yes…
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The co-directors of the first film, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (though only Stahelski gets a credit) originally worked with Keanu Reeves as his stunt doubles in The Matrix and then worked as stunt co-ordinators and unit directors, before Reeves brought them on board for John Wick.
The fight sequences are consistently top tier, leaving us writers with a problem when it comes to synonyms. I think we collectively settled on violently balletic in the end. They’re gripping (the fighting, not our quests for synonyms, unless you’re an editorial assassin like me, though our weapons are red pens instead of pencils), vicious and increasingly played for laughs.
The first film sets the stakes high: John’s take down of 12 attackers in his house when Viggo sends a first wave of assassins; the pursuit through the Red Circle nightclub, Iosef running for his life wearing only a towel; the hugely enjoyable dingdong when Ms Perkins breaks into his hotel room (if they don’t have a history of shagging I’ll eat my stash of gold coins); the fight between Viggo’s men and Wick when Viggo has him tied to a chair.
Fighting is John’s natural state; when he’s not fighting he moves with a slight awkwardness that goes beyond his injuries. Even when the fights are urgent and desperate, biting each other and pulling limbs back awkwardly until they snap, there’s still an elegance as well as a purpose to it.
Some of the long set-piece fights are spectacular (witness John taking on all-comers when he goes to retrieve his car in the chop shop in the start of John Wick: Chapter 2, in a startlingly colourful environment) though the one-to-ones, like his final showdown with ex-boss Viggo Tarasov in the first film, work so well because they’re small-scale and personal.
And in the second and third films there’s a focus on respect between John and any particularly skilled fighters he comes up against, a romantic idea that fits with the underworld’s determination to impose rules so it can believe itself better than the animals.
I could go on forever about John Wick, but the new film is out in 20 months and my kids need their tea. Be seeing you.
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More John Wick:
- Interview with Sambo expert Stephen Koepfer. Sambo is a Russian fighting technique developed for the military, and now a sport. Steve worked with Stahelski to create a Sambo training scene in Anjelica Huston’s fiefdom, where she and John walk through a fighting hall.
- John Wick review
- John Wick: Chapter 2 review
- John Wick: Parebellum review
- Kean-who? The Doctor will see you now
- 10 Reasons why… the ultimate alt-Xmas movie is John Wick
- 10 what’s with Wick moments from John Wick 1
- Wick did what? 10 things that made me go “Whoa!” in John Wick: Chapter 2
- Podcast: I spoke to Tom Beasley from Flickering Myth about my favourite movie…
Buy the John Wick films
- John Wick trilogy at Amazon UK, or separately: John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, and John Wick: Parabellum.
- John Wick trilogy at Amazon.com, or separately: John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, and John Wick: Parabellum.