Action movie fans are spoiled for choice these days. The movie theaters and DVD racks are filled with them, and it takes a lot for any individual effort to stand out from the pack.
In 2014, John Wick stood out.
Starting with a remarkably simple premise (they killed his dog; he wants revenge) the film took audiences on a ride through a stylish and surprisingly rich world of hitmen. With Keanu Reeves as the titular retired assassin, the film was praised by critics and fans alike for its clever story, interesting characters, neo-noir style and, of course, blistering action.
Now John Wick: Chapter 2 is set to hit theaters, expanding the world that was introduced in the first film. With more movies planned, not to mention a comic book, video game and even a potential TV series, the world of John Wick is only getting bigger. Here are fifteen ways Reeves and company are bringing us the next great action franchise.
15 Great action
It's obvious, so let's get it out of the way first. A great action franchise needs, well, great action, and John Wick has it in spades.
Keanu Reeves trained for months to get ready for his role as the master assassin, working with experts in weaponry and martial arts to ensure his movements in the film rang true. It wasn't the first time he had been through such a process, of course: a similar program was designed for the stars of The Matrix, and that film was also celebrated for its remarkable action. In John Wick, his hard work paid off once again, as the mix of judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (and lots of gunplay) enabled him to convincingly dispatch wave after wave of bad guys on screen.
Reeves wasn't the only one who delivered big on the action front. Adrianne Palicki also trained extensively for her role as Ms. Perkins, and Michael Nyqvist did some boxing to better inhabit the role of crime boss Viggo. The film also benefited from the casting of actor and martial artist Daniel Bernhardt as Viggo's henchman Kirill, since he and John Wick have a number of showdowns throughout the film.
But hiring the right actors (and stuntmen) was just part of the process...
14 The right filmmakers
It was equally important that the right filmmakers be hired to bring John Wick's saga to life. After getting the production off the ground and attracting the attention of Keanu Reeves, screenwriter Derek Kolstad worked with the actor to develop the story further.
It was Reeves who approached Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, with whom he had worked on The Matrix trilogy. Known both for their work as stuntmen as well as their action choreography, they jumped at the chance to work with Reeves on bringing the hitman and his world to the screen. The pair directed the film together, though Leitch was credited only as a producer.
Chapter 2 is in the same good hands. Like the first film, it was written by Kolstad, produced by Leitch and directed by Stahelski. Keeping the same team of creators together bodes well for the quality and success of the new movie, and hopefully they stay together for the duration of the franchise.
Every story is influenced by another that came before. In bringing John Wick to the screen, the filmmakers distilled a number of their influences down into one amazing action film.
In conceiving the project, screenwriter Derek Kolstad cited writers Alastair MacLean and Stephen King as inspirations, both for designing a protagonist with hidden depth and the layered world in which he lives. Those influences are clear in the finished film, as the viewer slowly comes to learn all that John Wick is capable of, while being gradually exposed to the breadth of the underworld in which he used to operate.
As for the directors, they have cited a wide range of influences for their work on the film, from the films of John Woo and Sergio Leone to Akira Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino.
All of these disparate influences blended together, along with a carefully selected cast, to create one of the most memorable action films in recent years.
12 A Matrix Reunion
In an inspired bit of casting, Laurence Fishburne appears in John Wick: Chapter 2 as the mysterious Bowery King, a fearsome underworld figure who could be both friend and foe. Fishburne, of course, famously co-starred with Reeves in The Matrix trilogy.
It's not the first time the franchise has given us a Matrix reunion. In the first film, Reeves interacted with two of his co-stars from The Matrix Reloaded: Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson) played the henchman Kirill, while Randall Duk Kim (The Keymaker) turned up as The Continental's doctor.
Whether it's been an intentional flourish on the part of the filmmakers or mere coincidence, it's been fun to see Reeves reunite with different co-stars from his most successful films, and it would be great to see the tradition continue in future installments. Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity) would be an obvious choice to join the franchise, as would Joe Pantoliano (Cypher). Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith) would be another inspired choice, especially if he and Reeves got to square off again.
11 Great ensemble
Casting Keanu Reeves in the lead role of John Wick was a fine choice, but the filmmakers didn't rely on his star power alone. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad filled his script with great supporting characters, and the quality of the performers cast in those roles went a long way towards creating the fascinating world that viewers found so compelling.
Michael Nyqvist is perfect as John's former boss, the ruthless crime boss Viggo, while Alfie Allen ably sheds his meek Game of Thrones persona to play Viggo's arrogant son Iosef. Adrianne Palicki is suitably nasty and vicious as John's rival Ms. Perkins.
Elsewhere, John Leguizamo has a small but key role as Aurelio, owner of a chop shop with a very exclusive clientele: Lance Reddick is perfect as Charon, concierge at the Continental: and smaller roles are filled by great character actors like Randall Duk Kim, David Patrick Kelly and Bridget Regan.
The best of the impressive supporting cast are arguably Willem Dafoe as the principled hitman Marcus and Ian McShane as Winston, the mysterious owner of the Continental.
The film industry is nothing if not consistent, and when something works, it tends to be copied. The success of the Jason Bourne series, coupled with that of Daniel Craig's James Bond films, has resulted in a wave of similarly gritty and realistic action films. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily: some of them have been great. But still, it's nice when a film tries something different and breaks the mold.
There's a lot of action in John Wick, but it's not necessarily gritty. It's stylized, and the realism factor is dialed down a fair bit: even the best of assassins would have a hard time going up against dozens of opponents and walking away unscathed.
The film is also very colorful, not drab like many post-Bourne films. The heightened color palette lends itself well to the sense that John Wick operates in a world similar to ours, but slightly different.
A great soundtrack can work wonders for a movie.
With the right composer scoring the action, and a few well selected licensed songs, the soundtrack can really make a movie come alive on the screen, and make it far more memorable for the audience.
Tyler Bates was undoubtedly the right choice to score John Wick. Having worked on a number of films including Watchmen, 300, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Bates brought plenty of experience to the table. His collaboration with Marilyn Manson (pictured) on the hard rock icon's ninth studio album also paid off with the inclusion of the hit song "Killing Strangers". Le Castle Vania contributed a number of tracks, including the instantly memorable "Shots Fired", featured in the film as John shoots his way through the Red Circle nightclub. Kaleida's "Think" and M86's "In My Mind" are other licensed standouts.
Bates is back for Chapter 2, so the new film is certain to have another stellar soundtrack.
8 Critical acclaim
The critical response to a movie is an important factor in its ultimate success or failure. Some moviegoers may ignore reviews altogether, but there are still many who look to critics to inform their choices. Take Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as an example. It's odd to think of a movie that grossed $873 million at the box office as a disappointment, but Warner Brothers had a much higher number in mind. The poor critical reception to the film (represented by a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes) was undoubtedly a big factor in the movie's 'poor' showing.
It's the rare action movie that is beloved by critics and fans alike. Most entries in the genre receive mixed reviews, if not outright negative ones. John Wick, on the other hand, received rave reviews from both critics and fans. It has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, representing a surprisingly positive critical consensus.
Critical reception may not matter to the viewer, but it does to the studio. The strong reviews for John Wick surely played a part in their decision to move ahead with the sequel.
7 Low budget
Movie studios love making a profitable movie on a small budget. With modern blockbusters becoming more and more costly to produce, smaller films that exceed their box office expectations are akin to finding buried treasure.
John Wick was one such film. Produced on a meager (for modern action films) $20 million budget, it brought in $86 million at the box office, more than tripling the studio's investment: and that's without factoring in home video and digital sales. Thanks to that performance, a sequel was quickly given the green light.
Chapter 2 is another fairly low budget affair, and it stands to reason that future installments in the series will continue in that fashion. That's fitting, as the first film was a small, personal story, and all indications are that the new film is much the same. John Wick doesn't need to be in the middle of huge explosions and clashing armies: give him some guns and point him at an enemy, and you'll have an entertaining movie.
6 A rich world
If John Wick had just been about a former hitman who gets revenge on the thugs who wronged him, it would still have been a good movie: it just wouldn't have been as memorable.
From the moment John leaves his home to seek his revenge, the audience is pulled into what almost seems like a parallel universe to our own. It's New York City, with all the landmarks and streets we've come to know, but there is another world hidden away from view, and viewers follow John into it.
Had the filmmakers tried to fully explain that hidden world to the viewer, the movie would have been bogged down in exposition. Instead, they trusted the audience to keep up and fill any gaps with their own imagination. Assassins exchange gold coins as payment for various goods and services, but we don't need to know the full history of the custom. Several characters clearly have considerable history between them, like John and Ms. Perkins, but the content of that history remains a mystery.
By creating a world with so much depth, and then letting the audience add their imagination to it, the filmmakers crafted a movie that never stops moving while planting seeds for further stories.
5 The Continental
If there is one element of the film that encapsulates the rich world that Kolstad and the directors created, it's the Continental: a hotel that caters solely to assassins and other underworld figures.
It's when John first enters the Continental that the audience first glimpses the 'other world' hidden away from the one we know, and exemplifies the scope of the backstory that the creators layered into the movie. As John enters, he passes Ms. Perkins, and the two share a brief word, instantly establishing their existing relationship (if not detailing the extent of it). Then John is greeted warmly by Charon, the concierge, and we learn that our protagonist has done considerable business at this establishment.
Later, John sits down with the owner of the Continental, Winston. Thanks in no small part to the commanding presence of Ian McShane, Winston has tremendous presence and clearly wields a great deal of power in the underworld. It's his dictum that no 'business' be conducted on Continental grounds, a rule that is enforced with deadly consequences.
A movie (even a TV series) could be made on the denizens of the Continental alone. If we're lucky, we might just see it one day.
4 Expanding the story
The world of John Wick is so deep that it's only natural it be explored in other mediums.
It was recently announced that Dynamite Entertainment will publish comic books based on the property. It remains to be seen exactly what story will be told in the comic, or how it will relate to the films, but there are certainly no shortage of options. Chapter 2 is set to pick up mere days after the events of the first film, so there might be a small gap to fill in there. More enticingly, the comic book could serve as a prequel to the films and follow John's escapades as the killer all other killers fear, the proverbial boogeyman of the underworld.
A novel (or a whole series of them) would also be a fitting way to shed more light on John's world.
A video game adaptation is another obvious fit, and there is a virtual reality game in the works that will allow gamers to explore the hallowed halls of the Continental. While John hasn't received his own game yet, he did make an appearance in Payday 2 as a downloadable add-on to the game.
3 More to come
If you're a fan of John Wick, you have a lot to look forward to. Chapter 2 isn't even in theaters yet, but Chapter 3 is already in the planning stages, and that's to say nothing of a Chapter 4, or 5...
The filmmakers are already developing ideas for the third film, with Ian McShane's Winston and Lance Reddick's Charon said to play key roles. That would seem to suggest there is a fairly large role in the story for the Continental hotel, at which both of those characters are based. That would certainly be a positive development if true, as the Continental and its denizens was one of the most intriguing elements of the first film.
There have even been discussions of a John Wick television series to serve as a prequel to the films and focus on John's days as a fearsome hitman. There's undoubtedly plenty of potential in the adventures of a younger, more ruthless John in the days before he met his wife and left the underworld, though a lot would depend on the actor chosen to embody him.
2 Remorseless hero
With all the crime in the real world, and the justice (or lack there of) that is doled out to criminals in our society, it's not surprising that 'vigilante' characters are so popular in fiction.
In the first film, John Wick is very reminiscent of popular vigilantes like The Punisher and Paul Kersey, Charles Bronson's character from the Death Wish series. All three are men who have been grievously wronged, and unlike other popular vigilante characters (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.) they have no qualms whatsoever about using lethal force to punish the guilty.
In John Wick's case, he becomes an absolute force of nature in his pursuit of Iosef Tarasov after the gangster breaks into his home and kills his dog. He guns down the literal army that stands between him and his target. All of the men are gangsters, so the audience doesn't need to mourn them or feel guilty for enjoying John's bloody path to justice.
Captain America and Superman are great, but sometimes you want a hero who has no rules.
1 Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves has come a long way from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (which was awesome, by the way).
He's not the most gifted actor of his generation, but he's a bonafide movie star, and his presence in a film immediately lends it credibility. He is also capable of far more nuanced performances than his critics give him credit for. While it's true that a number of his characters have shared a certain mellow, 'surfer dude' quality, he is more than capable of bringing great passion and emotion to a role when it's called for.
There is nothing mellow about John Wick, and from the very first scene, Reeves is totally convincing as the most dangerous man in a world full of dangerous people.
Just as importantly, Reeves is passionate about the character and his world, and is working alongside the filmmakers to continue building the franchise. That's great news for John Wick fans.
Are you looking forward to John Wick: Chapter 2? Do you want to see the franchise keep growing? Let us know in the comments.