So far, the legacy of the John Wick quadrilogy has been one of growing production value, but declining writing quality. The series seems to become more elaborate and extravagant with every outing, but neither of the sequels have made the same industry-staggering impact in terms of emotional resonance or cultural significance.
The John Wick sequels have maintained and expanded the sensational superficial elements of the original, but have left out the most essential things that made John Wick a definitive piece of popular culture.
One of the key things the sequels attempt is making the action sequences more aesthetic and elaborate. The issue is that alluring aesthetics make quality cinematography but don’t automatically generate engaging fight scenes.
I will fist fight anyone who looks me in the eye and says the nightclub scene in the first John Wick film is not the best scene in the John Wick franchise. When John is sneaking through the bathhouse, drenched in red and blue light, taking out targets like a video game stealth mission, the viewer is met with a perfect combination of alluring visuals, building tension, and witnessing a professional assassin do what he does best.
There is a bare sensitivity to the opening moments of this sequence that escalates into the hot-blooded chase through the crowd of dancers and ultimately pays off with an explosive gripping shootout through the multiple floors of this night club.
Every frame in this sequence is beautifully shot and perfectly utilizes color, movement, and framing to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. This sequence has been the standard of John Wick-ness that every sequel has tried to emulate to varying degrees of success.
All of the fight scenes in the series since this take place in interesting locations with their own identity and visual qualities. No John Wick fight scene thus far has been anything but beautiful to look at.
Unfortunately, the aesthetic settings, colors, and set-pieces seem to be the main takeaway from the nightclub scene. What is lacking from similar scenes in the sequels is the sense of progression and the methodical hunting strategy of John Wick.
For example the final fight scene in John Wick 3: Parabellum where John fights twins is likely the least badass sequence I’ve seen in any respectable action film. The twins kick John’s tired old ass the entire time, even helping him up at one point. The fight presents itself as tense but really the audience is just waiting for whatever plot convenience to happen that will end the fight.
John is really just trying to not get killed in this scene which is nowhere near as interesting as watching him on the attack. This scene also features a sequence where John is thrown through 47 glass cases that shatter the moment he makes contact with them. The way this segment was presented, it feels like the directors really thought we’d be impressed by such a glaring obvious gimmick.
The scene looks fantastic with reflective surfaces and fluorescent lights creating a beautiful tapestry of geometric patterns. It might look very good, but the fight scene has no tension, so it makes for better trailer shots than a film.
Both of the sequels do not capture what made the original’s fight sequences so gripping and instead try to pour visuals over them to compensate. This ideology is present in the overall story as well. In John Wick, the story is structured, simple, and perfected with an interesting dollop of world-building with the Continental to spice things up.
In the sequels, the structure of the film has taken a backseat to the world-buidling. The assassin network now has a high table, an interconnected network of international assassins by the boatload, an inner-framework run by tattooed rockabilly chicks exclusively for some reason, and an endless supply of power and influence.
This is all very well, but so much more time has been spent developing this world than deciding how he will interact with it. The sequels went with a lazy simplistic answer: Everyone tries to kill John.
So, this brings me to the biggest key difference between the original film and the sequels:
John being the Hunter, not the hunted
In the first movie, John Wick is a relentless bloodhound who cannot be stopped. He is the Baba Yaga, a force of sheer will. We were presented with a motivation so universally understandable, revenge for puppy-murder, that it instinctually makes us all root for the culprit’s death.
John Wick is our champion, driven to correct this wrong and remove the instantly detestable spoiled brat from the earth. He is chosen to bring a sense of balance back to the earth. He is hardly even a person, more of a cosmic tool of correction. Watching John Wick is akin to watching a slasher movie where the murderer is the hero.
The sequels suffer by making John the prey of the other assassins and switching him to defense-mode. So much of the enjoyment of the first movie is in watching the hunt, and all of the sensational elements are in service of that.
From the moment John gets his car back in John Wick 2 to the ending scene of John Wick 3: Parabellum, the world of assassins is attacking John and he is merely defending himself. He is no longer an agent of reckoning, but instead a scared man with a set of skills.
All of the issues, from the lackluster fight scenes to the less-engaging plotting, can be boiled down to this switch from hunter to hunted. Having an active protagonist is story writing 101, and ignoring this has been a detriment to the quality of the sequels.
That being said…
John Wick 4 has to potential to be a return to form
At the end of the 3rd film we see that John Wick intends to take down the “high table” of the assassin order with Laurence Fishburne’s character’s army of the underground. This tells the audience that John will be a very active protagonist in the fourth and final film.
The film will hopefully combine all of the more sensational elements that have grown so much over the past two films with the structural necessity of an active protagonist that was present in the first movie.
God willing, the Baba Yaga will return, exacting the same focused revenge as in the first movie, but now on an incredibly powerful group of assassin-guarded monarchs instead of a mob boss’s son. We get to see the aspects of John Wick that make him a dynamic character again: Not just his fighting skills, but his sheer will and determination.
With all of the production value and money being spent in these sequels theres no way we could have a boiled-down simplified perfected experience like the first John Wick, but at least the character is back in the driver’s seat for this finale.
The film will likely suffer from the other trappings that have harmed the sequels, like using high-budget set-pieces to distract from uninspired fight choreography, but at least there is some more hope for the story structure and character motivation.
I feel that this distinction alone will create a more engaging viewing experience than 2 and 3, but I know in my heart it still will not come close to the original John Wick.