The basic premise of John Wick sounds like a terrible straight-to-DVD action flick: “A former hitman seeks revenge after his car gets stolen and his dog is killed,” but just like the titular character, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Any one of us might be skeptical upon first hearing of it, but after viewing it, it provides a strong case for being the best action film since 2008’s Taken.
Just like Taken, John Wick became a surprise hit no one saw coming. But unlike Taken, John Wick has not been tormented by fledgling sequels. So what sets Wick apart? While Liam Neeson’s performance was what made the first Taken so great, it’s the world-building of both John Wick films that makes them a modern day classic action series.
On the surface, John Wick is yet another badass with a particular set of skills, a guy who can pull off slick combat moves while fighting off hordes of bad guys. But there’s so much more to the series — and yet, there isn’t.
Taken takes place in a world that reflects our own. The first film was successful in part because it addressed the real-issue topic of kidnapping and sex trafficking. However, the second and third Taken films seem subpar in comparison due to an absence of any real reflection of the world as people know it. Both John Wick films, on the other hand, go full throttle into ridiculous action scenes and never try to convince us they are “realistic” in the first place, thus supporting the suspension of disbelief that the Taken sequels failed to hold.
Another quality that sets the John Wick series apart is that instead of simply building up to the next sequence, the writers go in a different direction, attempting to evoke interest and suspense during the quiet moments. And in the process, they have created an original fantasy unlike any other. Wick’s character comes from a world hidden within our own, filled with various assassins, secret networks, hotels designed to accommodate members of their profession, and even an exclusive currency of gold coins. Think Harry Potter, but with assassins instead of wizards. This helps set up the Wick films apart from the average action flick by providing its various settings with the unfamiliar yet enthralling characters and scenery.
Make no mistake, both John Wick films are bang-em-up/shoot-em-up action flicks that, on the surface, should be mediocre B films. John Wick could have very easily been a failure had the casting, writing, camera work or fight choreography been even slightly different. Somehow though, all those elements come together successfully to create a new kind of action film that other producers are now bound to attempt copying. (Just look at all the action flicks starring a senior actor that came out after Taken: 3 Days to Kill, The Gunman, The November Man, The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head — most of them never came close to being as good.)
The producers and production designers deserve so much credit for creating such evocative set pieces. It’s these minor details in which John Wick thrives and perhaps what made for such a strong sequel. These little things that are shown but never explained, like the special golden coins, blood oath medallions, and the codes of conduct carried out by members of this unnamed underworld network. The series acts as though this is a world we should already be familiar with, as though it’s already been established in a previous film. This is what particularly helps make the films come off as enthralling rather than ridiculous. Instead of saying, “That’s not real,” we find ourselves in awe because this is all happening in the cinematic fantastical world of assassins that Wick comes from.
But let’s not forget about the bread and butter of these flicks.
The fight scenes are like well-choreographed dance numbers — bloody and fatal but executed with immaculate timing and precision — so one could say there is an art form to Wick’s fighting skills. The first film establishes that Wick is a man who left that world behind. He tried to live a normal life with a woman he loved, but after her death and an unfortunate series of events, he’s brought back into that world and we see his transformation into the killer he has to be. Because we got to see a before and after of “our world” and then Wick’s world, it wipes away our suspension of disbelief as we follow Wick along for the ride as we’re taken into the depths of the criminal underworld and we witness his near-mythological status amongst other criminals.
John Wick: Chapter 2 went even further into this world by introducing new organizations, codes of conduct, and settings by going internationally beyond the inceptive criminal underground of New York City. There’s now talks of a third film as well as a potential prequel series. Unlike Taken 2, John Wick: Chapter 2 is arguably better than its first entry, building upon the events that took place and then elevating the stakes and thrills — along with ending at a point suggesting there’s even more to come. The brilliance of the John Wick series is how it proves one timeless truth about film :
All you need to do to hook an audience is to create a world that people will want to explore…and don’t give it all away at once. That way, the audience will keep asking for more.
So here’s hoping we get to see more of Wick onscreen in the future!