The Russian mafia killed his dog. He killed all of them.
That was the simple, often joked about premise of the first John Wick. A slickly made 2014 thriller with a sense of humour and a brilliantly propulsive plot, it endeared itself to action junkies and animal lovers everywhere.
Then came its sequel John Wick: Chapter 2 in 2017, one which doubled the original’s twenty million budget as well as its absurd lore, fully committing to a world where hitmen are as common as postmen with hotels catering solely to them. A love letter to the sartorial elegance of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime dramas and the gun-fu of John Woo, it was even more rapturously received.
One imagines a lot of this acclaim was for its incredible sequel tease stinger. It saw Keanu Reeves’ titular character – a legendary retired assassin forced back into the game – get excommunicado(ed?), John Wick lingo for being blacklisted from all the protection his crime world offered. With a massive bounty on his head, it ended with our anti-hero getting ready to fight his way out of a New York where everyone wants him dead.
The recently released John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum delivered on its predecessor’s finale, with a more bone-crunchingly brutal entry to the franchise. In the opening ten minutes, Reeves’ assassin murders a 7ft man with a book. Wick then follows this by killing his hunters by utilising all the artifacts of a weapons museum, a horse, a pack of vicious dogs trained by Halle Berry and special bullets which pierce kevlar vests. The whole shebang culminates in a visceral over-extended last stand in which more mirrors are broken than in any film ever, one which leaves viewers feeling as beaten and exhausted as its titular character.
There’s a persuasive argument to be made that John Wick: Chapter 3, Mission Impossible: Fallout and Mad Max: Fury Road form a trilogy of perfect Hollywood action masterpieces – movies which may even rival Asia’s sterling work in the genre. For those who love the exploits of Mr Wick, here are five other films they should seek out.
Crying Freeman (1995)
Along with its incredibly choreographed action set-pieces, a high point of John Wick 3 is its villain Zero played by actor, martial artist and Iron Chef Mark Dacascos. One of the many interested in the millions to be gotten murdering Wick, what sets him apart is that he is just as skilled as Reeves’ hitmen while at the same time idealising him. As the two bash each other to death, Zero continually fanboys over Wick – with Dacascos bringing an off-kilter hilarity to the would be pompus circumstances.
To see Dacascos in his prime – playing a role which could have easily been played by Reeves – check out Crying Freeman, an adaption of a best selling manga. A woman tired of life named Emu witnesses a gangland murder committed by a man dubbed ‘Freeman’ (Dacascos) who cries as he commits the crime. Knowing that she will soon be killed on account of her being a witness, she accepts her fate. However, Freeman can’t bring himself to kill Emu and the two become lovers. She awakens his humanity previously laid dormant thanks to a Chinese triad’s subliminal messaging through acupuncture. Their love leads him to strike back against his employers.
A unique blend of Asian mysticism, gangland warfare and romance, Crying Freeman succeeds on the strength of director Christophe Gans, who went on to helm the visually impressive if flawed Silent Hill adaptation in 2006. Similar to John Wick, he mimics the style and pace of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai with the slow-mo heavy operatic action of John Woo’s The Killer. It’s also terrific to see Dacascos in his dashing prime. He should have been a bigger star. At least we have John Wick 3 to thank for bringing him back to the big screen.
Shoot Em’ Up (2007)
This bombed upon release back in 2007. However, one imagines in the current landscape – where the absurdly comic violence of the John Wick franchise, as well as Deadpool, Kick-Ass and Kingsman, is mainstream – this would have fared better. Clive Owen plays mysterious drifter Smith who finds himself on the run with a prostitute (Monica Bellucci) and a baby. The latter the villains (fronted by a brilliantly cast against type Paul Giamatti) want dead.
In a similar way to John Wick 3, Shoot Em’ Up establishes how insane it is quickly and then just escalates from there. In the first scene, Smith kills a man with a carrot. In the finale, he has his hands broken but manages to off the baddie by placing live bullets between his fingers, detonating them with a fireplace. In between, however, is the piece de resistance. Smith’s passionate love making to Bellucci’s character Donna is interrupted by men trying to kill him. Let’s just say he manages to solve the problem and continue the task at hand.
One great thing about the John Wick franchise is that it seems tailor made to suit Keanu Reeves’ skills as an actor. While not the strongest delivering dialogue, his otherworldly presence and peak human physicality make him perfect for heightened action fare. Throughout the three John Wick movies, director Chad Stahelski has surrounded Reeves with the likes of Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio and Willem Dafoe to do the heavy lifting in rattling off words. This is as he lets his star look cool shooting people in the head.
Ocean’s 11 and Out of Sight director Steven Soderbergh pulled a similar trick with Haywire, crafting a movie around the limited acting skills but sheer muscular power of female MMA star Gina Carano. She plays Mallory Kane, a former marine turned private operative. Becoming the scapegoat for a mission gone wrong, she must fight to clear her name.
Carano’s delivery, like Reeves’, may be slightly stiff. Yet, it’s hard to complain when she brings such enhanced verisimilitude and weight to the film’s many action scenes. We totally buy Carano handing Michael Fassbender’s ass to him, as she does in Haywire’s pivotal sequence, a stunning hotel room fight. Here Soderbergh uses no music and minimal cuts, knowing the MMA star’s fists is all he needs to shock his audience. Along with Carano and Fassbender in the stacked cast for Haywire is Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Ewan McGregor and Michael Douglas.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Director and stuntman Chad Stahelski has helmed all three John Wicks. However, he had help on the first from another stunt performer turned filmmaker David Leitch. After the first entry in the franchise, the latter parted ways from Stahelski, bringing some of that John Wick action – the type which feels simultaneously tangible and realistic but also bonkers and berserk – to the Charlize Theron starring Atomic Blonde.
A spy thriller with a host of jaw-dropping set-pieces, the movie centres on a female MI6 agent (Theron) sent into 1989 divided Berlin. She’s there to recover a stolen microfilm document that contains the names of every spy active in the German capital. Featuring a rich historical setting, a banging 80s soundtrack, endless neon and James McAvoy hamming it up as a macho rogue fellow agent, Atomic Blonde has it all. Most noteworthy though is its bone crunching and stabby seven minute unbroken stairway fight, rendered in what looks like an unbroken shot.
The Night Comes For Us (2018)
As mentioned previously, a huge inspiration on the John Wick franchise is Asian cinema, something which its third entry acknowledges more explicitly. Not only is its motorcycle sword duel a homage to 2017 Korean flick The Villainess, two stars from The Raid feature in a memorable fight in the film’s endless final action sequence. However, the Asian movie John Wick 3 recalls most is another Indonesian thriller The Night Comes For Us. Currently streaming on Netflix, Headstuff liked it so much, we included it in our top 20 films of last year.
Like John Wick 3, it centres on a legendary hitman who everyone in the city wants dead who is forced to turn to the few old connections willing to help him. In the case of The Night Comes For Us, that’s a heroin addict named Bobby. If you thought John Wick 3’s over-extended final set-piece was relentless, the entirety of this grim thriller is pitched at that level. Each brawl will leave your mouth agape, asking how the filmmakers managed to render it onscreen.
As my colleague Andrew Carroll said in his review: “The camera luxuriates in the damage done to the human body by fists, feet, bullets, knives, explosives and even a mop bucket. Every character dies with at least three broken bones, six bullet wounds or a dozen stab wounds. Sometimes all three are dished out on one person.” For action junkies, this is the only recommendation they need.