*Last Updated 7/12/2023
John Wick came out in 2014 to strong reviews, great word of mouth, and a fresh style of action from director(s) and stunt choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. While a lot of the chatter around the film focused on the gimmick of a revenge story about a killed dog, I think it was the intriguing world of assassins and unique action sequences that were the substance of most people's enjoyment. Each of the directors/choreographers behind the films has been in Hollywood working on stunt teams for years, including working with Keanu Reeves on the Matrix franchise. Their style was certainly a new feel for Hollywood, it's one I happen to really enjoy, and you can trace its influences pretty clearly.
First, there's the Hong Kong action penchant for extended takes with a wide camera view giving the audience a clear view of the action and performances. Second, there's an influence from John Woo's "glorious bloodshed" films like Hard Boiled where shootouts aren't just simplistic point and shoot affairs, but received the same kind of intricate design and care that kung fu fight sequences do. Third, there's an influence from the Bourne series on a quick and practical special forces/MMA like fighting style that emphasizes sudden strikes and takedowns over showy and flashy fights. Fourth and finally, the action design and intensity (combining clarity, violence, and smooth editing) of Gareth Evans' Raid films are part of the mix here as well. All combined, this style and the John Wick series has given action cinema an adrenaline shot, many great set pieces, and a style to copy and drill into the ground just like every other new movement has been.
Action star Keanu Reeves has proved he was the perfect man to be a vehicle for this action style as he loves doing stunts himself, allowing the director to film long shots that clearly show the actor and not a stuntman. He's also great at quiet emotion, not so great at lots of dialogue, which is perfect for the character. The fighting style isn't about strength and big guns so you don't need a muscle bound jock nor is it about the "underdog" getting super powers so you don't want someone lacking too much build; instead the style is about a series of precise tactical movements and his work on The Matrix with kung fu choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping proved his dedication and enjoyment to learning intricate choreography. Additionally, his height and lanky nature gives the type of grounded striking and grappling style he is asked to complete additional credibility.
I need to temper my praise with some levity. Here are three basic critiques I have of the series as a "film franchise". I'll give examples from the first film, but they are present in some form in all of them.
- Poor Story Structures: The first John Wick film spends the half building up a mobster's son as the ultimate villain and building Wick and his quirky assassin world. It includes two amazing action sequences and it all feels exciting and fresh. Then the second half of the film rushes into a series of sub-par action sequences and changes the main villain from the son (who killed the dog & stole the car) to the father. Huh? I don't know the behind the scenes situation, but the last half of the film feels rushed and compromised.
- Wick's Ability Inconsistency: Wick's abilities are also oddly inconsistent throughout the franchise, especially in the first film. In the first film he is treated like a fairy tale boogeyman who can take out scores of people on his own (and at times he does). However, at other times he loses fights, needs help from a sniper friend twice to save his life, or goes down in a two minute shootout. I don't get it, what is he?
- Action Scene Sweet Spots: As great and creative as many of the sequences in the franchise are, I find they often fail to hit the sweet spot. For instance, there are several sequences that clock in at just a couple of minutes and then end - amounting to no more than just a handful of beats. Not a problem for a boring scene, but if its the exciting horse chase or creative motorcycle chase through New York, it leaves you really wanting more and feeling a bit incomplete. If the sequences aren't too short, then they are often far too long. The finale of the third film (and to a lesser extent the second film) contain some amazing stuff, but they are so lengthy and contain the same basic gunplay (with some twists) that it can feel exhausting and repetitive - undermining so much of their hard work. Every action style has its sweet spot and I find that's a big struggle for this franchise.
All that said, here are my basic takes on the four films in the franchise so far.
- John Wick (B-) 2014: A strong first half of the infamous "You killed my dog and stole my car" setup gives us the character of John Wick, two amazing action sequences, and introduces us to this particular world of assassins. The second half of the film does everything it can to spoil that goodness with a slew of mediocre action sequences and a plot that loses focus. Though it's still enjoyable to watch, it would've been a much better film if it could have stuck the landing.
- John Wick: Chapter 2 (B+): Another strong first half throws Wick right back into the world of assassins, expands the universe with the concepts of a marker, and the high table. We even get a stylish, patient, and engaging view into the Continental of Rome and its services punctuated by two strong action sequences. Unlike the first film, the second half of this sequel moves at a great pace, offers several more diverse and high quality action sequences without taking its eye ofd the story goal. The story isn't much and there's not much depth here, but this sequel has a much stronger overall collection of action sequences, keeps a simple story simple, while widening the John Wick universe with enough intriguing new concepts and characters that it leaves you wanting more. This is the best film of the franchise and a fantastic genre entry.
- John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (B-): The third film literally picks up where the last one left off, John Wick is excommunicated from the Continental and all its services and there is now a 14 million dollar bounty on his head. The initial 25 minutes are devoted to more assassins chasing and fighting Wick - giving us the awesome knife throwing sequence...but also stalling the actual story for quite a bit of time. Wick makes his way to Casablanca where he calls Sofia, played by Halle Berry to honor her marker and help him find a mysterious "Elder" who might help him take down the High Table, but it all drags and feels not that engaging. They end up back in New York for the final action pieces. It doesn't disappoint as an action film that houses multiple top-notch and memorable scenes, but the story has grown overly-complicated and less compelling with this entry.
- John Wick: Chapter 4 (B): John Wick: Chapter 4 is one of the greatest collections of action sequences ever put on film. The final forty minute stretch of the film is an action lover’s paradise and a perfect representative of the dizzying heights the series has reached in its levels of action creativity (and how much it has stretched believability). Unfortunately, I think I can only give it massive props as a great "collection of action sequences" because as a genuine “film” with a logical and compelling story that forces its characters to grow through obstacles that represent important themes…it falls pretty darn flat. In that sense it reminds me of the difference between the first and second Raid films; the first one integrates the action into a lean and engaging story that brings people back to watch it from beginning to end, but the second one includes technically better and action set pieces held together by a story and characters straining to justify their existence. Put another way, Die Hard is a film I’ll watch from beginning to end and John Wick: Chapter 4 is a film I’ll type into youtube constantly to watch clips over and over of its great action set pieces. Both provide me a great thing, but I think it's important to point out the difference. Whether or not you think the action is SO good that it overcomes any storytelling deficiencies (like most argue with Jackie Chan films) will vary from person to person, but I think I generally prefer my action films to get both the story and set pieces right and admit when they don't. See my full review of the film HERE.
All John Wick Sequences Rated and Ranked
Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.
23. "Attack on Iosef's Hideout" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: Wick finally learns of Iosef's hideout and this killing sequence plays out like it was absolutely no sweat. Wick takes out multiple guards with a sniper rifle, blows up their getaway cars, shoots Iosef on the run. Easy stuff with very little exercion on Wick's part. Scenes like this don't make a lot of sense when you put it next to John's failed assault on Viggo and the need for Dafoe's sniper to help in other situations. Is he an unbeatable beast or is he just really great but fails and needs help to accomplish his goal. As much as I love some scenes in this film, there are uneven signals and characterizations like this that frustrate me.
Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.
22. "Captured: Daylight Assault on the Vault & Viggo Backfires" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: Coming not too long after the measured and extremely well structured shootout sequence at the Red Circle Club, John Wick heads to a Russian Church, takes out the people inside (they are all part of the mob) and burns up a vault of money and valuables. He then just shows up in broad daylight with an assault rifle and takes on Viggo's entourage. It's strange because the sequence comes out of nowhere and Wick eventually fails in the quick shootout. I mean, he looks good for a couple of minutes, he clearly knows how to handle an assault rifle and move around tactically. But the bad guys don't do much to take him out and they capture Wick. I guess you could argue this was his plan to have a sit down chance with Viggo, but that requires a lot of trust in his sniper assassin friend and Viggo to not take him out immediately. A strange sequence this one. A misstep for the film I think.
21. "Docks Finale: Taking Out Viggo with a Dodge" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: I'm not sure why, but the film decided to kill off the central villain, the cowardly Son Iosef, early in the film and switch the main villain role to his father Viggo. Odd choice, but okay. Wick tracks him down at the docks and we get a short sequence where Wick, in a Dodge Charger, is bumping and hitting Viggo and his crew who are in a Chevy Tahoe. Ultimately, Wick forces the Tahoe into a crash and he drives around shooting the henchmen as they exit the vehicle. There's an odd moment here where one of the henchmen (who is playing scared) shoots at Wick's window and misses and responds with a laugh. He is oddly just standing in the middle of the dock with no protection and missed Wick, yet is laughing in a confident way. Wick hits him with the vehicle (cause he doesn't move) and then we get a showdown between Wick and Viggo where we get the cliche "No guns lets fight like a man" that ends in Wick stabbing Viggo. It's an odd sequence that sort of succeeds, but has lots of head scratching moments that makes me think there was some decent behind the scenes issues.
20. "Library Fight: Wick vs. Boban" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2014)
Commentary: On the run from assassins before his 14 million dollar bounty kicks in, Wick heads to the New York Public Library where he has stashed some valuables in an obscure book (this is a nice homage to Hard Boiled). He's confronted there by a giant assassin played by real life NBA player Boban Marjanovic. They fight among the book stacks with Boban throwing him back and forth and Wick fighting back by using a thick book to wail on him, break his jaw, and later break his neck. My favorite part of the fight is that you can clearly see one or two people on the library computers not even 75 feet away who clearly would hear such a loud fight, but they keep on going as if nothing is happening. A colorful fight worked well around Boban's limits as an amateur.
19. "Reluctant Sword Fight: Donnie Yen vs. Hiroyuki Sanada" -John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
- Commentary: In a 2.5 hour action film that dedicates at least an entire hour of that runtime to action, I'm not sure of the wisdom in only giving Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada a couple of minutes to do their thing. These legendary Asian action stars face off in a reluctant sword fight that gets a couple of flashy beats but is more notable for its restrained runtime, cool setting, and reluctant tone. While I appreciate the restraint, this is one area I could have used a minute or two more for these guys to show off what they can do.
Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.
18. "Tied Up Trouble: Fight to Escape" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: John Wick is captured by the Russians and in the midst of being suffocated, he is saved (yet again) by his assassin sniper friend (Willem Dafoe). It's the second time John has only survived thanks to this deus ex machina. The sniper help allows John to get free and fight the remaining main henchmen who took John down at the Red Circle club. This somewhat extended fight is done primarily in an MMA grappling style and I don't think the style works well for anything more than quick pops of action. You really have to do a fantastic job to make extended MMA style grappling play well on the screen and they try, but it's just decent stuff to me. Anyways, John gets a big gun and heads out to chase down Viggo and force him to give up his son's location. Decent stuff.
17. "Berlin Club Brawl" -John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
- Commentary: Hearkening back to the Red Circle Nightclub shootout of the first film and the Roman Ruins dance party of the second, the fourth film returns to a nightclub setting...I guess because it gives them a reason to keep bathing fight scenes in lights, gimmicks, and pulsing dance soundtracks. After an interminably long and indulgent exposition scene at a card table, a fight eventually breaks out and Wick is forced to track down Scott Adkin's chubby bad guy named Killa. The nightclub is filled with waterfalls and the collection of fights with Killa and his goons weave in and out of them and feature hatchets (for some reason). In a phrase that I could repeat for many of the sequences in the middle of this list, this is a technically good sequence but the gimmicks of water and hatchets can't quite keep this from feeling a little redundant and similar to other sequences in the franchise. Still, taken by itself, it's a fine sequence.
16. "Osaka Hotel Battle: Part 1 - Opening Skirmishes" -John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
- Commentary: The first major set piece of the fourth film is about twenty minutes long and I've broken the it into two halves because although they are technically one long sequence, they are very different in nature, This entire sequence could be the finale for most other actions films and that's a clue that although it is technically well done, it just feels a bit indulgent as a set piece. The opening ten minutes or so feature a collection of sequences, largely group gun and weapon fights, that introduce our new set of bad guys from the Marquis and give us a chance to see Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and Donnie Yen do their thing before Keanu gets his featured set pieces. As an introduction to these characters and their fighting abilities, it's okay, as an action scene - it's well shot filler that feels like it should be on the cutting room floor.
15. "Hotel Room Fight: Wick vs. Female Assassin" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: After his epic shootout at the Red Circle Club, Wick returns to the Continental to attend to his wounds and get rest. Breaking the rules of the Continental, a female assassin named Perkins takes the chance to get the kill on Wick and earn four million. Thankfully, Wick is given a warning shot by an assassin who was already lined up for a shot. The resulting fight is more like an MMA mat wrestling match with each assassin trying to get leverage. In a wince-inducing moment, Perkins takes some particularly brutal shots at Wick's open wounds, but still can't quite get full advantage. An overall decent fight scene, but there's nothing too special to see here.
Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.
14. "Opening: Getting Back the Mustang, Demolition Derby, & Fights" -John Wick (2014)
Commentary: The opening for the sequel to John Wick picks up close to where the last one left off. John wants his stolen Mustang back and is tracking down the man who has it. He enters into their warehouse taking out guys one by one and then quietly takes the car, knocks down a guy, and drives out of the warehouse. The bad guys give chase and treat his car like its a demolition derby, smashing him left and right, and in one cool sequence the door gets taken off to take out a bad guy on a motorbike. Then, illogically, John drives back to the warehouse he drove out of. I don't get it, why did he leave if he wanted to come back? Anyways, he gets back and in another cool stunt the back of his car is hit forcing him out the side of his car (remember his door had been taken off). He then gets in some hand to hand fights and is on the ground when a big guy approaches so he takes his gun out and shoots him in the legs. Again, if he had the gun and was willing to shoot these guys, why didn't get bust the gun out at first? Some odd choices here in this scene, but there are a lot of cool car stunts and some decent fighting beats mixed in.
13. "Motorcycle Katana Fight" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Commentary: After his new commission from The Elder in the Saharan desert (that sounds silly doesn't it?), John Wick arrives back in New York at Grand Central Terminal. He is greeted by an assassin named Zero (Mark Dacascos) and his goons. Wick eludes him, grabs a motorcycle (after a brief fight), makes his escape, but is followed by goons on motorcycles wielding katanas. The next minute and a half or so of Wick fighting off these katana wielding motorcycle fiends while driving on a NYC bridge is pretty incredible stuff and largely done in one shot. Now, admittedly, it was accomplished primarily through green screen but the effects work here is largely unseen (despite a few dodgy moments, especially the motorcycle crash). For the most part, this feels like an extended motorcycle sequence done for real. It comes to an end when John ends up getting onto Continental property and thus safety (even though he is ex communicado - it's a weird world of rules that can't be broken constantly being broken. Incredibly creative sequence with a unique and impressive execution, but I can't help but feel left wanting by its short runtime and context. A cool concept and execution deserves more time and attention in my opinion. It feels like a diamond just thrown at the audience so we can get to the next one. Can you let us stop and enjoy it first? You preference on that may vary, but that's how I feel after this one.
12. "Horse Stable Havoc" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Commentary: Still on the run from assassins, Wick enters into a stable of horses. It's a strange idea "Let's have Wick weave in and out of horses, using them as obstacles, and every now and then getting them to kick one of the bad guys". Strangely enough, it works. Wick does weave in and out of the horses, stopping to catch a bad guy and take them down, then move on. There's a couple of moments where he slaps a horse and they kick a bad guy standing behind them. It's a good, but strange scene, that takes a turn when Wick gets up on a horse and decides to head right down the street at night on it. Two more assassins on motorcycles drive up and John takes them out. This particular beat is a cool idea, it sort looks cool on camera, but the obvious CGI sours it a bit for me. An overall good sequence with some interesting quirks to it.
Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. They are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.
11. "Continental Finale: Five Stages of Excess" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Commentary: Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I think this sequence makes a good case for it. The finale for the third film takes place at the recently deconsecrated Continental Hotel - meaning business is now allowed to be conducted. High Table forces along with the assassin Zero and his goons will be attacking the hotel. The finale is an exhaustive one with no less than five (!!) distinct phases to it. The first phase (about 6 min) is a shootout in the lobby of the hotel with heavily armored high table forces. In an odd choice they turn out the lights in the lobby (understandable), but then turn on bands of green neon. There's almost no reason for the characters in the story to do that other than to give us viewers a more stylish action scene - very odd. The director has described this first sequence as "boxing with bullets" as Wick's strategy is to try and shoot the forces to stagger them and then get a more precise shot in the weak spots of their armor. It's nice to see Charon and Continental men join the shootout here, but without any body armor they are taken out pretty quickly by the high tables forces. After early struggles, Wick and Charon head up to get even more firepower - particularly armor piercing shotguns and we enter the second phase (3 min.) of the finale: a second shootout with shotguns in a maintenance area of the hotel. This is all okay stuff (who doesn't enjoy seeing Keanu Reeves rapid load and fire a shotgun?), but it's nothing we haven't seen before - okay with the exception of that interesting underwater shootout bit. John then heads up to the administrative rooms (a series of glass floors and rooms with artifacts and stylized lighting - feels a bit too derivative of the museum final mirror section) for the next three phases of the finale. The third phase (4 min.) sees Wick fight two of Zero's random martial arts henchmen who throw Wick into a lot of CGI glass and wield katanas that ultimately become their own death. John ascends the stairs for the fourth phase (4 min.) sees John take on Zero's main two henchmen, Shinobi 1 & 2 - played by incredible martial arts Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian. This is a really great 2 v 1 fight and would have made a strong first half of a finale on its own. These three are great film fighters and make everything look intense and real. It's too bad that I'm a bit exhausted from the almost non-stop 14 or so minutes leading up to this encounter. Here's the catch, once you add the 4 or so minutes of this great 1 vs 2 fight, we are now around a 20 minute sequence and we haven't even faced the main two villains of the film yet - Zero and the adjudicator. The fifth phase of the final sees Wick face off against Zero in a katana fight. Zero has done this whole disappear and reappear thing with Wick for the finale and Wick here, in between fight beats, turns the tables on him. It's kind of silly, but it does look visually interesting when done in this stylized glass set. The fight overall is okay, but it's just not unique enough and doesn't quite match the high point of the earlier one to become a satisfying ramp up. It just goes on for far too long and feels like a lesser moment than what's come before It all lasts a total of 23 minutes or so and had it all been fresh concepts and not just good riffs on previous ideas, I think it may have worked. As always, the high quality of the choreography and ambition here will always give it a high floor, but the repetition and length also place a ceiling on it that leaner and more efficient sequences don't have.
10. "John Wick vs. Common Ends at the Continental" -John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Commentary: After escaping the fallout in the catacombs from his assassination, Wick gets a breather in the streets as he heads back to safety of the Continental hotel. Before he can get there he is by a car, out pops Common (playing the security for the women Wick just assassinated) and a fight ensues. It begins with a nice little John Woo esque gunplay as they shoot at each other running parallel between two cars and then turns into a pretty brutal close quarters fight. They fight and wrestle along the streets, fall down three flights of stairs, and each try and try to restrain the other with a beautiful view of old Rome in the background. The fight ends abruptly when they smash into the Continental and are forced to separate. In a funny touch, they both grab drinks at the bar together.
9. "Osaka Battle - Part 2: Wick, Nunchucks, & Yen" -John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
Commentary: The second half of the first major twenty minute set piece of the fourth film is focused largely on John Wick making his way through a random room of glass walls and Japanese artifacts all lit for maximum coolness. Wick fights off a series of goons in his traditional gunfu style at first but when he is disarmed he must resort to the use of nunchucks. We get several minutes of Wick creatively incorporating the use of nunchucks to stun, disarm, and take down his opponents. This is probably the most iconic use of nunchucks outside of Bruce Lee and Michelangelo (the ninja turtle, not the painter) and its likely what the entire sequence will most be remembered for as the choreography provides several memorable visual beats with them. The sequence culminates in a good, not great, showdown between Keanu Reeve's Wick and Donnie Yen's blind assassin Caine. They do a good job showcasing Yen's speed and the equal talent of the two men. My only gripe with this sequence, which could have been much better, is that it comes at the end of a twenty minute long sequence that while technically good, feels a lot like filler. The nunchuck stuff is great and the Yen stuff is really good, but when it's all crammed together it's hard for the two unique elements to stand out. Taken as an action showcase, it feels like a great demo of choreography, actors, and camera work. Placed inside the context of the story, it loses some of its luster.
8. "Assassin Open Season on Wick in NYC Ends in the Subway" -John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Commentary: What a cool idea for an action. A 7 million dollar contract has been put on John Wick and there is a bevy of assassins waiting for him as he arrives in New York. There's a montage as he faces off against an assassin pretending to be a violin player, a giant Samoan (?) assassin, and two Asian assassin he takes out pretty brutally with just a pencil. The last assassin we focus on is Common who catches up with Wick at the Metropolitan Opera. Since they are out in public each of the assassins engage in a casual shootout where they try and conceal their shots. The discreet shootout ends in a knife fight on the subway. It's a decent fight, but not a standout. Taken all together, this is a great collection of encounters that culminates in the Common fight.
GRADE: A-These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.
7. "Casablanca Shootout: Dog Problems for Berrada" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Commentary: Wick and Sofia (Halle Berry) go together to meet Berrada who is a power player who can possibly get Wick to a certain character called "The Elder" who is above the High Table (sound a little convoluted?) Anyway, Berrada is kind of a jerk, shoots Berry's dog (something Wick can empathize with), and we get a shootout in Berrada's Casablanca Compound. The two unique gimmicks for this action sequence is the presence of Sofia as a kind of female John Wick kicking butt and taking names just as well as John and the presence of her two attack dogs. It's kind of like the creatives said, let's take our normal shootout goodness, add female John Wick and dogs; which on paper does sound pretty awesome in a quirky way. The execution here is unsurprisingly fantastic. How could you not enjoy seeing two dogs sprint across a courtyard and take down armed bad guys? A lesser film would have gone completely CGI with the dogs and ruined everything, but effects are used sparingly here - we get real dogs doing there thing and its pretty fearsome. My favorite beat here is an extended one shot on Sofia who at the opening of a courtyard gets the chance to do some tactical shooting around some pillars while her dogs clean up the downed bad guys. With no cuts or edits the scene feels seamless and grounded - it's impressive stuff. Unfortunately, some of the franchise flaws rear there head as the sequence really does wear out its welcome towards the end with too many back to back beats of tactical double shots and takedowns. By the end it feels like parody, there must have been a garrison of bad guys just waiting in that facility to be killed. Still, the high spots, the overall quality, and the creative inclusion of the dogs can't be ignored or denied. This is a great shootout.
6. "Roman Assassination, Catacombs Shootout, & Escape" -John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Commentary: This is a frustrating sequence because there is so much good about it with a couple of key flaws that once you feel them, are hard to ignore. This Rome sequence is the second film's answer to the incredible Red Circle Club Shootout sequence from the first film. It begins with a long and patient setup as Keanu checks into the Continental at Rome, gears up, suits up, concocts his plan of attack based on the old catacombs system and then even lays out guns along his getaway route. He enters the estate grounds as a large party is taking place, evoking the lights, music, and atmosphere of the Red Circle club, but among Roman ruins. Even the actual assassination, which takes place in a private bathroom evokes the bathhouse from the first movie. After the assassination Wick runs into security (headed by Common) and the shootout begins. It takes him from the outdoor nighttime dance party into the floodlit catacomb passages where he makes great use of the various weapons he stored earlier (a nice touch). There's three key flaws here though, the scene evokes the first film's club scene so much that it feels somewhat derivative and repetitive rather than just "similar." It kinda feels like a discount version of it - floodlit underground passages just can't compete with the feel of that first sequence. Secondly, there's only so many ways you can double tap goons before it all starts to feel like random goons are now just always around a corner or throwing themselves at Wick to be killed. The scene goes on long enough that this becomes a small issue. Lastly, I love the idea that Wick has a "suit" that has bullet stopping power, but this also saps the scene of vulnerability - he's being shot at but we know he can only be hurt not actually stopped. All of those flaws combine together to lessen what is otherwise another really cool and stylish set piece featuring a lot of great gunplay beats that is still superior to what most action scenes put out.
5. "Finale: Museum Shootout" -John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Commentary: It's really difficult to make "John Wick shoots a bunch of people" into something interesting after you've done it several times already, let alone just twenty minutes prior in the film. The finale setup sees Wick wanting to go after Santino at his art museum because Santino forced him back into the assassin life to put a hit on a high table member and then double-crossed him and put a contract out on John Wick. The unique twist this go around is that Wick can only start out with one gun and seven bullets - given to him previously by Laurence Fishburne. The gimmick played out means that Wick is going to have to keep killing goons and stealing their weapons/ammo along the way. If you watch the scene closely, they actually stick to this rule pretty well. The scene kicks off with Wick walking into and opening fire in the middle of a high table soiree happening in the museum. Santino, surrounded by security whisks away, and Wick follows room by room taking out dozens and dozens of security along the way. Lots of the signature franchise tactical gunplay beats here; for my tastes the scene would have been helped with a little less. Thankfully, the sequence changes gears for the second half as they enter a modern art exhibit with tons of moving glass walls - a clear homage to similar sequences in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon and James Bond's The Man With the Golden Gun. The villain taunts John as they move through the exhibit and it becomes difficult for the viewer to tell the reflections from reality, but we get some nice bits of gunplay and fights scattered about. It's all pretty visually cool and striking, It's also a nice change of pace from the usual stuff - but I think think it quite fully works despite their strong efforts. The end comes with Keanu taking out Ruby Rose's mute knife wielding assassin. A strong action sequence with more high quality gunplay, atmospheric settings, and a couple unique concepts with the limit on guns (though it never becomes a real problem) and different paced second half.
4. "Home Invasion: Wick Repels Gangsters" -John Wick (2014)
Commentary: First off, the buildup to this action sequence is probably the best in the entire sequence. We have yet to see John Wick actually do much of anything to earn the reputation that characters have been giving him so far. We are nearly thirty minutes into the film already and the main villain has suggested sending practically his entire team to Wick's home to take him out. While the team arrives he is reciting a song about the boogeyman as the music builds atmosphere and Wick gets ready in his suit and tie. What an incredible buildup - what is Wick going to be like? The first intruders make their way into the house, black silhouettes against the all white interior, and Wick strikes. From the first few seconds the style is distinct: this is an aggressive tactical style enhanced to be even more cinematic. Wick is precise and efficient with his shots. He takes out about four people in a quick four seconds. He's not a superhero though as the next few action beats show: he has to get into some hand to hand scraps with the intruders and while he uses a kind of practical takedown MMA style, he struggles with the bad guys. I like the setup here that this scene gives us - a former assassin who is the best at what he does, but who is still vulnerable if attacked right. The final few action beats here are great little isolated bits of gunplay and efficient fight choreography. This is just a slick little piece of stylish yet restrained action right here that doesn't rely on Wick killing 50 men to be great. Quietly, this efficient little gem is one of the best of the entire franchise.
Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.
3. "Antique Gun & Knife Fight" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Commentary: After getting a quick stitch-up from a doctor, Wick is back on the run with his 14 million dollar bounty live. His path brings him into a building that just so happens to be an antique gun and knife shop or museum. In a pretty funny gag, Wick spends his precious time trying to get one of the antique guns to work only to find a gun with bullets that don't match so then he patiently and methodically breaks a gun down that does, repairs it, and only gets one shot off before he has to abandon the whole project. At least the one shot comes from the hip like an old cowboy. The next room he runs to is filled with knives axes behind glass containers. He pauses by the corner waiting for his pursuers and then engages them, disarms them, and we are off with one of the most creative fights in the entire franchise.
As Wick and the assassin fight they suddenly recognize they are surrounded by deadly knives just sitting there behind the glass. Each kind of gives each other a look and then turn to their side, break the glass, and the knife throwing contest begins. In a normal "super-trained special ops" type action film, the knife throwing is always perfect and on target (think Jason Statham's character in the Expendable films), but the nice little twist this sequence throws at us is...a little bit of reality. The reality of knife throwing is that even the best miss and have the knives bounce off their targets at times. There's moments in the knife throwing beats here where the knives are just bouncing off each other forcing our combatants to keep breaking the glass and finding more and more knives to throw. These knife moments are pretty fun, but the best part of the fight for is a when two assassins with small axes (with longtime stuntman and martial artist Tiger Chen as one of the assassins) fight Wick. The entire scene is done with just a few extended takes and it is a masterclass of choreography. Wick, who is unarmed, bobs, weaves, dodges, blocks, redirects, and takes down his opponents until he can secure a knife and lead us to the brutal ending I won't describe here. Great concept, perfect execution, and a couple of funny gags make this the best "fight" scene of the entire franchise.
Commentary: The finale sequence of the fourth film features three large set pieces over a bruising forty minutes and if you view them as a summative representative for the ludicrous and creative action lengths the Wick franchise has become known for then I think one has to acknowledge this as one of the greatest sequences of all-time (it's long enough to be half of most movies!) Taken together, the three set pieces incorporate every action trend the franchise has helped to establish as well as the various influences (including classic Western films, Looney Tunes, and Hong Kong gunplay) into a Sisyphean struggle to get to an important duel that will take place at the Sacre Coeur in Paris. The journey to the Sacre Coeur is framed as an homage to the Warriors with a underworld radio DJ giving a call out to all goons in the area to stop John from completing the journey. It also provides an opportunity to feature pop songs over the action scenes and "Nowhere to Run To" and "Paint it Black" are used well here.
The first set piece is a unique Wick blend of automobile chase, crash derby, shootout and fight, mostly taking place in front of the Arc de Triumph. It begins with Wick getting rammed by a muscle car and ending up on the hood. He commandeers the car and after some shootout/crashes, makes his way towards the arc with both doors having been ripped off. The sequence around the Arc features some incredible visuals like Wick drifting a full circle around a group of goons as he fires away at them through his missing door. Once his car is incapacitated, the sequence turns into a unique series of shootouts/fights around the Arc as Wick and the goons weave in and out of traffic. The addition of the Arc in the background along with numerous spectacular and surprising car stunts filling the screen makes the proceedings feel completely fresh and new. This isn't just one little car stunt by the way, we are talking a nearly ten minute sequence that if the film had ended there would have been a real highlight of the franchise. The second major set piece finds Wick chased into an abandoned apartment building. A shootout ensues with several goons, including the unnamed Tracker that's been shadowing him with an attack dog. There are two memorable gimmicks making this one of the great shootouts of all-time. First, there's ammunition called Dragon's Breath being used that is about halfway between a normal bullet muzzle flash and a grenade launcher...oh and it leaves the enemy on fire as well. Wick gets his hand on this ammunition and then in a couple of long takes the camera moves into an overhead shot of the abandoned apartment giving us a god's eye kind of view of the action. The whole thing feels like a revelation and with the choreography compliments the camera move well by having Wick and the other goons moving strategically through several rooms, taking cover, and firing between walls. Throw in the visual flare of the dragon's breath, an attack dog element, and you have another over the top standout sequence.
The third and final set piece of this mega-finale is the shootout/fight to advance up the stairs to the Sacre Coeur. This sequence gives a literal Sisyphean feel to the entire proceedings as Wick advances painstakingly up the 222 steps by taking out numerous goons only to find himself knocked down to the beginning again in two of the most brutal stair falls by a stunt men ever put to film. Donnie Yen's assassin Caine joins Wick and they go back up the stairs together taking out the rest of the goons as they go. It's a tour de force of stunts, gunplay, and fighting that does a great job physically manifesting what Wick and the creatives behind it must have felt in bringing this franchise to a possible close in this fourth installment. This entire three set piece sequence is a monumental achievement and will be watched by action fans from here on out. So why not pull the trigger and give this an A+? First, I don't give A+ ratings out lightly. The film is still somewhat fresh (it just came out four months ago) and I like to allow sequences to sit a bit and stand a test of time before I reward it my highest ranking. Second, I have some small gripes about the sequence and they are mostly subjective, given to taste and preference. The three wildly imaginative set pieces are also so over the top at moments that it can be hard to roll with it. Wick takes a ton of car hits in the first set piece and then literally jumps out of a four-five story building and lands on a car on the street below and still gets up as okay. I get it, it's a joke, but at some point (and that point is different for everyone) you have to protect believability. Additionally, the visual effects in the Arc sequence are only 99% convincing, meaning that there's just those one or two moments that remind you its fake. Making up for that in spades though is just how uniquely this mega finale brings together so many of the iconic action aspects of the franchise into a genuinely thrilling mini-film that feels new, fresh, and creative. Perhaps with more views, it will challenge what I think is the pound for pound masterpiece in the franchise.
An all-time great action sequence. This does not mean it is a technically perfect action sequence, just that it is "perfect" to me. This is one I can watch over and over and it doesn't lose its power.
1. "Shootout at the Red Circle Nightclub" -John Wick (2014)
- Commentary: For my money, this action sequence is the high point of the franchise and one of the best shootout sequences ever set to film. The gunplay is fantastic yes, but one of the underrated keys to this sequence working as well as it does and becoming as memorable as it is, has a lot to do with the time and effort put into the setup and the setting (both work together). Wick is looking to take out Iosef, the son of a mob boss, who is in "hiding" at a Russian nightclub where he is living it up in the luxurious confines of the bathhouse. Wick has to enter into the nightclub packed with security without setting off any alarm. This is the first time we've seen Wick try to actively take on an objective this size and the first action sequence in his home has just enough missed shots, missteps, and struggle in his fighting to make us wonder if her can accomplish the task. If you contrast that with how all the characters speak about Wick being the boogeyman this creates a real sense of "What is about to happen?" for first time viewers. Like Rambo or Chuck Norris stalking a Vietnamese POW camp, John slowly infiltrates the facility taking down guards quietly one by one. The club locations we see are bathed in a blue and light red light with atmospheric music like "Think" by Keliada playing in the background. It's incredibly distinctive and atmospheric. Much praise needs to go out for the slick cinematography and lighting here.
Eventually Wick finds his target but cannot take out a security guard quick enough, it causes noise, and Iosef is alerted to Wick's presence. This wasn't part of the plan, but Wick has to adapt and this is when the kinetic part of the scene launches. John chases Iosef from the bathhouse, to the nightclub dance floor, to a leather clad lounge, and then finishes off on the upper balcony. In each setting we get that precise tactical gunplay (with a John Woo like cinematic flair) mixed with MMA style fighting the franchise has become famous for. We even get a great quick reload moment here as well. My favorite of the gunplay moments is when the camera starts on Wick's face as he quickly rounds the corners of a dark hallway, gun drawn, and comes into the bright atmosphere of the lounge and we get some of the most iconic gunplay beats of the franchise just as the house music from the dance floor really starts jumping and we hit a higher gear in the action. It's a really nice bit of incorporating the diegetic sound of the nightclub giving energy to the most kinetic sequence that largely plays out with very little. The sequence hits hard with its simplicity, directness, and believability. All very hard things to pull off.
This chase, with Iosef cowardly throwing security as well as innocent patrons between him and Wick, provides a chance to give each lengthy gunplay beat a different atmosphere and feel. It's a smart way to keep everything feeling fresh and interesting on top of the top notch choreography. I feel like the action scenes in later entries, while fun and creative, had this problem of being too short (the 2 min. motorcycle samurai scene in the third film) or too lengthy, over the top, and redundant (the finale of film 2 and especially 3 suffers from this). I think this one hits the sweet spot of being a sustained set piece that thoroughly engages, gives plenty of "wow" gunplay beats, features an iconic setting/soundtrack, and never outwears its welcome or leaves you feeling like they made Wick too superhuman (I mean the scene basically ends with him losing a fight and getting thrown from the balcony to the club dance floor! That's grounded!) This is the standard bearer of the "Wick Style" right here - every major bit from this sequence would be riffed on and expanded in later films, but it was never put together from beginning to end like this. I initially overlooked this sequence on my first viewing. With many repeat viewings and much reflection, it seems clear to me that from setup to culmination, this is a masterpiece of a shootout.