After four long years of waiting, John Wick: Chapter 4 is upon us.
I recall the first time I saw the original John Wick trailer in 2014. I didn’t think much of it ahead of time. Keanu Reeves hadn’t done much worth getting excited about for some time unless you dug The Lake House, The Day the Earth Stood Stillgold 47 Ronins. Now he’s starring in a film about a guy getting revenge for his dead dog?
As it turns out, John Wick was awesome. So awesome, we received three sequels with more on the way, including a Ballerina spinoff with Ana de Armas, and a TV series featuring Mel Gibson. We’ve also enjoyed/endured hoards of copycats such as Atomic Blonde, nobodyand Gunpowder Milkshake — all good, mind you, just not John Wick good.
In fact, I’d rank John Wick up there with some of the classic heroes. But how would I rank his films? Seeing how Chapter 4 is now playing in theaters, now seems as good a time as any to find out how the John Wick movies ranked from worst to best.
4. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
There’s no such thing as a bad John Wick movie — yet! Still, our third blood-soaked adventure with the “Baba Yaga” doesn’t hit the same smooth beats as its predecessors despite a collection of incredible sequences that stand as the best in the series.
Picking up where Chapter 2 left-off, Parabellum gets cooking out of the gate and produces as kick-ass a knife fight as I’ve ever seen. It’s gruesome, violent, and undeniably awesome, capped by John casually tossing an ax into a dying man’s skull.
Unfortunately, patience is required to tolerate the next 30-45 minutes as John takes a long detour to regain his place under the High Table. He meets up with Halle Berry for a spell, kills a few hundred faceless dudes in a fun albeit overblown sequence, then heads out to the desert with that guy from wonder woman.
We’re diving deep into Continental lore here, folks, an aspect of the franchise I’ve never grown fond of. Like, I get it. There’s a world of assassins who obey rules, yada yada yada … I think Chapter 3 tries to get too cute with the formula and stumbles in its attempts to add significance to John’s quest. Thankfully, once our boy dons a new suit and gets back to the States, Parabellum finally gifts fans more of what they want, including a wicked shootout within the Continental, a series of glorious brawls, and a shocking ending that sets the stage for the next chapter.
Ultimately, there’s plenty to like in Chapter 3; you just have to wade through a little bit of muck to reach the good stuff.
3. John Wick (2014)
At first glance, John Wick tells the tale of a broken man avenging the death of his dog. Maybe that’s all involved anyone ever intended it to be. I’ve always looked a little deeper into this wildly entertaining, violent spectacle and found the story of a man caught between Heaven (his wife) and Hell (his past life). John takes the first opportunity to fall back into his old habits. Did he care about the dog? Safe. But John longed to return to his roots. Killing is his thing, and despite his proclamations of peace, he jumps at every chance to dish out violent retribution, no matter the consequences. But, as orderly as he appears, John is, as they say, an agent of chaos.
There’s more than meets the eye in Chad Stahelski’s fast-paced action extravaganza, a hypnotic, brilliantly executed thrill ride with surprising depth. Keanu is perfectly cast as our leading man. The actor shows a knack for handling guns, lots of guns, and carries himself well during the various fight sequences. Also on hand is a game-supporting cast led by Michael Nyqvist, John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and Adrianne Palicki — oh, and Willem Dafoe, stupendous as John’s brother-in-arms.
John Wick packs quite the punch thanks to gloriously realized “gun-fu” sequences and a handful of well-staged set pieces. It trips up slightly in the third act en route to its final boss battle but never fails to surprise, shock, or awe. John Wick is terrific cinema.
2. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
From its brilliant opening car battle, featuring a great cameo by the great Peter Stormare, you can tell John Wick: Chapter 2 has bigger fish to fry. If its predecessor offered a delicious appetizer, Chapter 2 serves the main course and barely leaves room for dessert. The sequel is as stylish, action-packed, and dazzling as the original but bigger, more confident, and refined.
The plot, such as it is, sees John thrust back into his previous life when a ruthless Italian gangster demands him to fulfill a contract made long ago. John travels to Rome, partakes in a gruesome execution, then returns to the States with a $7M contract on his head. Of course, this is just an excuse to toss Keanu into a series of brutal fight sequences — he kills some dudes with a pencil! — each more exciting than the next. It’s astonishing how director Stahleski finds new ways to surprise us throughout the expanded 120-minute run time, not just in the numerous shootouts. His scope is grander, and his characters are better realized. So while the world-building is a bit distracting, it’s not enough to diminish any of the film’s positive qualities.
Keanu infuses John with a perfect blend of rugged charm and ferocity. Make no mistake: John is a broken man on a path toward damnation, and he knows it. Every choice he makes is designed to set up the next battle because this dark world is all he has. The climactic action sequence takes place in a room full of mirrors where John is forced to watch his near-supernatural actions play out on various surfaces. By the film’s end, he’s still the likable anti-hero but clearly so lost in revenge that he can’t even bother to name his new dog. “You’re addicted to this life,” a character tells him. No hash.
A lot is boiling under the surface of John Wick 2, enough to raise it above the typical Hollywood action picture. That it features some of the most thrilling action sequences ever committed to film is just icing on the cake. John Wick 2 rules.
1. John Wick: Chapter 4
It’s so great when a film comes along that’s good you have to see it again and again. As much as I love John Wick 1-3, Chapter 4 somehow takes the already extraordinary franchise to a new gear I didn’t even know existed. Narratively, Chapter 4 hits many of the same beats as earlier installments, but director Chad Stahelski ups the action in a way that might be impossible to top. Of course, every set piece could serve as the climax of any action picture — yeah, John Wick: Chapter 4 is incredible and might go down as one of the all-time great action epics ever produced.
Moreover, the emotional stakes are the strongest since the original John Wick. As astonishing as the Dragon Breath shotgun and Arc de Triomphe sequences are, neither would matter if we didn’t care about the reason behind their existence. Thankfully, Stahelski and writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch establish proper character motivations early on and lean into the finely-tuned drama. As stated, much of the pic sticks close to the formula — Wick needs to kill a guy to get to the next plot point so that he can kill more people to get to the final plot point — but this time, the journey carries emotional weight .
Also, where side characters in previous entries felt more redundant than necessary, John Wick 4 introduces a handful of unique individuals I’d love to see more of in future films — Donnie Yen, in particular, is a standout, so much so that I decided I needed more of him and started watching the Ip-Man series for the first time. But you also have Shamier Anderson’s “Nobody,” Rina Sawayama’s Akira, Hiroyuki Sanada’s Shimazu Koji, and old friends Laurence Fishburne and Ian McShane. So there are plenty of directions to take the franchise.
My one disappointment with Chapter 4 is that I wanted to see John take down the High Table, an action seemingly promised at the end of Chapter 3. For the series to continue, I suppose we need the faceless leaders to remain in operation. Still, it would have been cool to see our boy burn down the establishment. Instead, he merely stokes the flames and will serve as the symbol that hopefully unites others to destroy/rebuild this strange universe.
Otherwise, Chapter 4 is a near-flawless, glorious piece of pulp cinema, violent, thrilling, emotional, and incredibly entertaining. John Wick goes down as one of pop culture’s greatest heroes. It’s the type of film I can’t wait to watch over and over again in the years to come. What a got darned ride. Everyone involved, please take a bow.