John Wick Is the Best Action Hero of the Decade

The 'John Wick' movies offer a powerful alternative to the corporate universe of Marvel and similar films dominated by visual effects. The third installment in the series, 'Parabellum,' leaves the viewer wanting more

Keanu Reeves, left, and Halle Berry in a scene from "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum."
Mark Rogers / Lionsgate / אתר

“I didn’t train as an actor, I trained as a stuntwoman,” Halle Berry told Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” about her preparation for shooting “John Wick 3: Parabellum.” At 52, Berry is the newest and also the youngest addition to the stars of the “John Wick” series, all of whom dish out and absorb violence in the form of fists and bullets, knives and a host of other objects. The blood-drenched, surrealistic world of John Wick only expands, perhaps a bit too much, in the new installment, in an attempt to develop existing characters and prepare the ground for sequels, possibly even a feminine spinoff.

Just five years ago, the first film in the series, “John Wick,” was a new and exciting breath of fresh air in the action genre. The superhero-studded 21st century placed the focus on digitized effects and frenetic editing. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who in an unusual career trajectory, both started out as stuntmen, aspired to restore the genre to its analog foundations. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad served them well with a conceptual simplicity that hints at the existence of an entire mythology below the surface. Wick is part of an open but hidden world – an urban subculture – in which contract killers constitute a whole community that’s subject to a pseudo-biblical code underlain by a basic law: an eye for an eye.

The saga set out by violating another, unwritten, rule: Don’t mess with John Wick. The scariest and most threatening killer of all, aka Bogeyman or Baba Yaga, took early retirement but had to make a comeback when his dog was murdered. The first film focused exclusively on his demand for justice, which sparked a methodical chain of actions that were violent, painful and stylized.

The success of “John Wick” has so far spawned two sequels, whose plots cover several weeks. “John Wick: Chapter 2” expanded the hero’s world to tell the story of a global network of killers who can find asylum in any hotel of the Continental chain, buy weapons in stores designated for them and of course obtain bulletproof, tailor-made suits. The third film starts immediately where its predecessor ended, after Wick is deprived of his rights and becomes the number-one target of every assassin in the world. In this case, however, the story deals not only with his struggle to survive; it also encompasses the killers who helped him along the way. Thus the roles in the saga of the hotel manager (Ian McShane), the leader of the Manhattan gang (Laurence Fishburne) and the new acquisition, Sofia (Halle Berry), are more substantial. With brutal but humoristic violence as appetizer, main course and dessert, the third installment succeeds in maintaining the momentum and enhancing the choreography of the combat scenes. Associate director David Leitch left after the first film to direct the superb “Atomic Blonde” with Charlize Theron, which contains one of the most impressive fight scenes of recent years. As “John Wick: Chapter 2” made clear, Stahelski is a pistol guy. However, in the new movie he restores the balance with the aid of some highly physical hand-to-hand combat.

Mainstream brand

In the expanding internal world of the assassins, the battles fought by John Wick become increasingly untenable, almost like a Warner Bros. cartoon, which only adds to their force. After Wick gained fame for wasting a group of hitmen with the use of a pointy pencil, this time the story opens with a brawl in the New York Public Library: Wick is armed with only a thick book, which he converts into an effective killing device. Even a sword fight on motorcycles at high speed, or a battle in which ballet dancers take part become not only credible, but almost mandatory. Within the grotesque and ludicrous world in which killers abide by a rigid set of rules, John Wick is not a superhero but more a figure from ancient mythology. A kind of force of nature that takes on human form to restore the order that has been disrupted.

Keanu Reeves in a scene from "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum."

Success, it appears, is the Achilles’ heel of the series. The action scenes have only improved, blending with Wick’s mythology even as they become more off-the-wall, but in a way that’s appropriate to the plot. The problems crop up in the extension of the mythology. It began in a modest, intimate fashion, against the background of a minor revenge story that lurched out of proportion. Now, with the narrative reaching out in terms of geography and villains, the filmmakers felt a need to beef up the mechanisms of Wick’s world. The combat scenes continue to be riveting: They pay respect to Hollywood-style action as well as the East Asian variety, while Wick himself remains a mysterious figure who usually makes do with uttering no more than a word or two. However, amid all this a ramified bureaucracy of the killers’ world is revealed, constructed like a house of cards. The exposure of the mythology only erodes it, as does the addition of the character of Sofia, which looks like an attempt to prepare the ground for a spinoff. John Wick’s solitariness was a central element of his strength, and now it’s gone. He thus becomes a successful mainstream brand, having been infected by the sequels disease: anticipating the movies to come at the expense of the movie at hand.

Even so, the “John Wick” series proves, even in the third film, that it offers the most interesting and most gorgeous action to come out of Hollywood in the past decade. If we examine Wick as a superhero in his universe, we find that his superpowers consist primarily of endurance and precision. Not exactly Iron Man. Though long shots depict Wick’s proficiency in the martial arts, their style isn’t intended to impress. There’s none of the theatrics we would expect in action of this sort. Reeves is 54 and doesn’t hide his age. Wick has been unceasingly bruised and battered from the start of the first film. His success lies in his ability to take what’s dished out, fall and get up, in order to repay in the same coin. His movements are heavy and slow, and all his rivals are more impressive than he.

These are the traits that make Wick a hero who is simultaneously an underdog and the strongest of them all. Like every action hero, he embodies a fantasy; but in contrast to superheroes, he exudes a certain modesty. As such, he presents a powerful alternative to Marvel’s corporate world, which has peaked with the current “Avengers: Endgame.” Wick, in contrast, is a representative of the old action, which disappeared in the era of blockbusters rife with special effects. On the other hand, he’s also a salient product of a period ruled by fantasy and science fiction. In the dialectics of action, John Wick offers as precise and sharp a synthesis as a pencil that’s transformed into a weapon.

Because of its exaggerated mythologizing, the third picture in the series isn’t on a par with its predecessors. But even so, John Wick reminds us why he is the best action hero of the decade. There’s good reason to look forward to the fourth installment.