The John Wick movies are some of the most exciting action movies of the past decade, but which is the best? Keanu Reeves' vengeful assassin is back in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and this looks to be only the start of a much bigger story.
In the John Wick franchise, Reeves portrays a retired hitman with almost nothing to lose. His wife passed away, his car was stolen, and gangsters even killed his dog. John Wick returns to the underworld in order to right several wrongs, and finds refuge at The Continental; a safe zone for assassins and other criminals. But when Wick takes out an enemy within The Continental grounds, he's quickly blacklisted and labeled "excommunicado." Thanks to an old friend, Wick has exactly one hour to prepare before a $14 million bounty contract becomes official.
The 2014 film John Wick establishes the rules of the game, which benefits the subsequent movies. In 2017, John Wick: Chapter 2 emphasized the mythology surrounding Reeves' title character. And the most recent installment, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, ups the ante with even more stylized action and wild fight sequences. Here's our ranking of the John Wick movies, beginning with the film that set a high bar for the franchise.
3. John Wick (2014)
John Wick excels as a modern neo-noir. Conceptually, there’s a brilliant premise in place: a retired hitman returns to a life of crime, seemingly because a gangster stole his Mustang and killed his dog. But there’s much more to consider, as Reeves' Wick grapples with an existential crisis after the death of his wife. Even the character’s enemies understand his plight, and they’re scared to death when Wick emerges from the underground to right various wrongs.
In John Wick, directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (the latter uncredited) let the action and aesthetic speak louder than words. The blue-grey color palette complements Wick’s mood, but the audience doesn’t learn about any deep-rooted issues; the dialogue and universe “rules” become important for teasing at an origin story. The Continental sequences specifically humanize Reeves' character, and shows that he's fully willing to break the established rules. In that sense, John Wick effectively maintains suspense, as the film holds back on fully revealing the title character's motivations and underworld connections.
As a stand-alone action film, John Wick checks various boxes. Reeves essentially plays a more interesting version than Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in the hitman classic Le Samouraï, and there’s distinct visual style in the filmmaking, whether it’s the cadence of Wick reloading his gun, or Reeves’ deadpan dialogue delivery. John Wick works on a practical level by consistently emphasizing the rules. And perhaps most importantly, John Wick teases franchise potential; Reeves delivers an impressive physical performance while the film itself holds back on character psychology.
2. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
John Wick exists so John Wick: Chapter 2 could thrive. As a cinematic experience, the second installment surpasses the original, largely in part to its increased budget at $40 million. There’s tremendous value in viewing John Wick for the first time, but the sequel’s production and narrative execution are simply more impressive and memorable. To be fair, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t need to worry as much about character exposition; it kicks off with a thrilling Brooklyn car chase and assumes that viewers came for a reason. But still, the visuals are more dynamic, the dialogue is more quotable, and the sequel wholly double down on universe rules, which is part of the fun.
There’s a Spaghetti Western spirit to John Wick: Chapter 2, in both the dialogue and the pacing. This time around, Stahelski seems to fully understand when to pause - when to hold a shot - thus allowing the audience to revel in the character mythology. Very early on, Peter Stormare's Abram Tarasov notes that “John Wick is a man of focus, commitment and sheer f**king will,” and a subsequent close-up shot of Reeves hammers that home. Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 feels more structurally focused and precise than the original; each moment matters and there’s a rhythm in contrast to John Wick's slower sequences that are crucial for world-building.
The second half of John Wick: Chapter 2 cements its legacy as a modern neo-noir classic. There’s the blood oath conceit, and what that means for the larger picture in terms of underworld favors. But then there’s the nightclub sequence which is all about immediacy and honor. Reeves’ sets off to execute a Camorra member Gianna D’Antonio - at the request of her brother Santino D'Antonio - only to discover that she'd rather kill herself than be assassinated. This precedes an instantly-iconic battle between Wick and Gianna's bodyguard Cassian (Common), which ends at The Continental bar. It’s not hard to imagine Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name visiting the same establishment. And therein lies the value of Franco Nero’s casting as manager Julius; he starred in Sergio Corbucci’s classic 1966 Spaghetti Western Django (the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained).
It’s that cinematic familiarity that makes John Wick: Chapter 2 so special. There’s a touch of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver during an extended weapon selection sequence, one that’s less about style and more about necessity. Wick doesn’t merely fire, fire, fire - the utilization and disposal of weapons is crucial from sequence to sequence. John Wick: Chapter 2 can easily be criticized for glorifying guns, but most viewers will likely correlate the most intense sequences with the fictional worlds of modern gaming, for better or for worse. As a whole, John Wick: Chapter 2 manages to remind the audience that this isn’t necessarily a movie about violence and bravado, but rather about a man’s quest for meaning and the nature of self.
1. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
While John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum stays true to the premise (the Dos and Donts at The Continental and beyond), Stahelski undeniably favors visceral action over narrative substance. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For this installment, survival is key, and by any means necessary. Wick no longer has the luxury of finding refuge at The Continental. Conceptually, this allows for the introduction of Halle Berry’s Sofia; a female assassin who matches Wick’s level of intensity. Their shootout sequences are not only thrilling and satisfying, but they also match the rhythmic intensity of Reeves' hand-to-hand combat. Stahelski makes sure to emphasize the characters’ hand-eye coordination, which translates to the technical aspects of shoot ‘em up gaming. Parabellum details both the method and the madness.
As for the script, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum mostly hits the right story beats. New characters are introduced, and new details are revealed about Wick’s backstory. There’s not much depth to Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator of the High Table, but she serves her purpose - she’s there to enforce. Still, viewers may be left wanting more information about the High Table. Additionally, John Wick 3 does occasionally become too self-aware, most notably when Mark Dacascos’ Zero, an assassin, reveals himself to be a John Wick fanboy. But that’s part of the franchise appeal - the tonal shifts from extreme violence to light-hearted comedy, all in the name of John Wick’s living legend persona. Despite some obvious storytelling flaws, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum overpowers the previous two chapters with action sequences that are shocking, full of dark humor, and technically precise.