Editor’s Note: The following contains John Wick: Chapter 4 spoilers.
“World building” is generally a term associated with superhero movies, science fiction, or some kind of fantastical place found through the looking glass, but the John Wick series has proven just as adept at adding new layers with each passing hour of the series. What makes its ever-expanding world of assassins and their increasingly involved subcultures that much more entertaining is how casual it all seems to come about. Instead of jumping in with both feet and going for big reveals of criminal underworlds, or some shocking climactic revelations, John Wick has a steadily quickening pace that intensifies as each new layer of killer strangeness is uncovered and John Wick: Chapter 4 deftly continues upping the everything.
The debut John Wick, a surprise hit beginning of the still-growing franchise that has yet to hit its ceiling, begins as a fairly simple revenge flick where Keanu Reeves becomes the kind of action star everyone’s dog will dream about for decades to come. While appearing to be fairly surface-level, it was already laying all kinds of brickwork for this sleek, modern, and amusingly antiquated universe where it seems more assassins exist than waiters. It’s a pretty excellent example of how a film can build a world all its own without calling particular attention to any of it. The various new elements are just there, with no audience-surrogate kind of character to ask questions and act a fool for easy laughs or opening text crawl to establish how the universe is different from reality in these wild ways. As things begin, actually, Reeves’ John has no universe.
John Wick Quickly Escalates Out of the Normal Realm
Putting aside the tease of the mayhem to come, John Wick is introduced as a fairly regular man mourning the death of his wife. Once his new puppy buddy is callously murdered, however, things quickly progress and John is sledge hammering up a concrete floor to reclaim his buried past. A combination of the unique gold coins, very effective score, and Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo Tarasov delivering the Baba Yaga backstory with amusing gravitas all joined together to launch the proceedings onto another level. Everything continues to escalate with a first glimpse of the assassin switchboard service, which is easily one of the most memorable notes about this unique world, and then The Continental, the classy hotel every hired killer goes for some rest and relaxation. It’s clear by this point in the film that it’s not just John’s world, anymore, even though he’s very much at the center.
Once John breaks that seal into his old life, the world building becomes more like world living as nothing takes place away from the assassin side of things. Winston (Ian McShane), Charon (Lance Reddick, who sadly passed away recently), Marcus (Willem Dafoe), and Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) help fill in all the backstory gaps and necessary exposition, not that it’s a ton, each bringing their own something to the table, so that Reeves can remain stoic and silent as he kills his way through however many obstacles life throws in his way. “Kills” isn’t quite right, either, as it’s more like a beautifully choreographed dance of death than some lazy, messy stabbing. That artfully conceived element of such constant violence was surely another element of John Wick which inspired enough vocal love to make it the kind of minor hit that had potential for major success. The millions of dog lovers out there surely didn’t mind seeing Reeves’ patron saint lay waste to all responsible (and then some) for such reprehensible animal cruelty, too. All the filmmakers needed to do for a sequel was deliver more of what worked, Reeves artfully and efficiently cutting down those that got in his way.
Judging by its financial and critical success, John Wick: Chapter 2 did just that. Instead of starting off with some reintroduction where time has passed, the action that kicks things off with John reclaiming his car (or what’s left of it) from Peter Stormare, playing brother to the first film’s now dead antagonist. It’s not long before the New York setting is switched out for Rome for a good deal of the action, which continues to widen the world with a new Continental location. Not only for a geographic change of pace, John’s mission expands the universe with all of The High Table and its intrigue. John’s rampage in the last film, it turns out, inspired old “friend” Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to call in the marker – an unbreakable promise – John owes him. That’s another bit of the films’ mythology they layer in nicely, as well as Santino’s involvement with John’s “impossible task” that let him be free to live life with Helen (Bridget Moynihan) for as long as it lasted. There are two unbreakable rules in the Wick World, evidently – no killing on Continental grounds and every marker must be honored. It’s quite the jam, though, as John honoring the marker is what gets yet another contract put out on his life. He finds reprieve from the onslaught of contract killers in a little The Matrix reunion with Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, who lords over his own corner of the murderer-filled world as leader of The League of Homeless Assassins. It’s not exactly a long overlap for the two, unfortunately, because John’s busy traversing the world in the name of survival after breaking the rules by putting a bullet in Santino right there in The Continental.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum’ Opens the World Up Wide
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum gets to hit the ground running alongside John, which is right where the previous film left him now that he’s got a 14 million bounty on his head. In addition to markers, the High Table, The Continental’s rules, and everything else that’s been added to the mythology so far, Part 3 ups the ante when it comes to learning things on the go. He pops in to visit The Director (Anjelica Houston) at the ballerina assassin academy, where it appears he spent his formative years learning how to kill in all the ways, before continuing on his bloody journey to peace. Sofia (Halle Berry) and her brutally efficient dogs take the spotlight for a little while, giving the viewer a wonderful second sampling of what happens in the Wick World when someone brings harm to a furry friend (even if the dog makes it out okay). There’s also the addition of Asia Kate Dillon’s The Adjudicator, a middle management-type who represents the High Table’s interests. The bureaucracy of the Adjudicator ends up sliding into this strange world with perfect sense, at least as far as “sense” goes in this kind of gloriously ludicrous world where assassins not only have their own hotels, but their own societies, their own currency, and apparently a completely separate life to all the normies obliviously existing parallel to constant warfare.
As for the much-anticipated latest chapter in the Book of Wick, the world building doesn’t take any time to slow down or back-pedal into a calmer existence. Without exposing anything by way of details, it’s safe to say that John, Winston, Charon, and everyone else in their sphere (including the latest canine friend to chow down on some baddies) remain forever busy shooting, avoiding being shot, or dealing with being shot. That’s no surprise, but what is a bit of a shock is that somehow this 3-hour third sequel in an action franchise delivers. It’s exactly the mix of expansive additions to the Wick World, featuring a fun spin on the contract killer switchboard from the first, and reliably amazing scenes of John dispatching a never-ending onslaught of cannon fodder who think they stand a chance. The set pieces continue to get grander in the best ways possible, with nary a moment wasted on anything but being a full-throated John Wick action extravaganza interspersed with brief cooldowns of exploring the franchise’s growing playground. This whole series of films has served. It will be of service.
With each new addition in the franchise, the Wick World becomes deeper and even more wonderfully ridiculous than before. The distinct take on this universe was apparent from the get-go, but for an out of nowhere action series soon premiering its fourth installment — with spin-offs Ballerina and The Continental on the way — it sure manages to have fun with its continually-expanding universe. If John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers on the high that reviews and pre-release buzz suggest is possible, then maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if it were to be the last one. The Wick World is built now, after all, and there’s still plenty to explore.