‘John Wick’ and the building of a franchise

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:41pm

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This article contains spoilers for “John Wick Chapter 3.”

Last weekend “John Wick: Chapter 3” became the highest grossing film in the franchise led by Keanu Reeves (“The Matrix”), taking in over 182 million dollars in its first two weeks. As noted by Forbes film critic Scott Mendelssohn, it is “essentially a trilogy where the first two sequels doubled their respective predecessors.” This is highly unusual, especially for a series that is not based on any previous intellectual property or comic book. The rising success of the “John Wick” series is an example of a franchise that has managed to break into the popular conscious despite its originality, which is a tall order in this day of sequels, prequels and live-action remakes.

The most obvious reason for the success of the “John Wick” films is the overall quality of the films. All three movies feature action sequences that are far above those of most other major modern blockbusters. Well choreographed, intricately shot and with minimal cutting, these action sequences have redefined action movies for an entire generation of young film-lovers.

While the plots of the “Wick” movies have never been their selling point, the slowly developing mythology surrounding a seemingly endless number of assassins who want to kill Keanu Reeves scratches the itch for deep lore that modern audiences have come to expect. At the same time, however, it refrains from feeling like something that viewers have already seen. The first two “John Wick” films both play as great stand-alone action movies, with the second one ending on a twist that seemed to indicate a rousing final chapter with “John Wick: Chapter 3.” Alas, it was not to pass.

While “Chapter 3” maintains the action of the previous two installments, it is also the first installment that feels like it was made knowing it was part of a successful movie franchise. In some sense this is unavoidable; after two movies it was certainly clear to critics, audiences and the filmmakers alike that “John Wick” was connecting with audiences and that there was more to tap in that well. But this third chapter in the series loses sense of the overall plot, relying ever more heavily on ridiculous turns and last-second reversals to justify the increasing amount of bloodshed.

As one example, near the end of the second act, John Wick re-affirms his commitment to the notorious assassin lords, known as the “High Table,” by cutting off his ring finger and offering up his wedding ring, when his wife has been his primary motivation since the first movie. Now this would be a powerful scene that marked a dramatic shift for John as a character, but the entire thing is undone about ten minutes later when he goes back on his agreement with the “High Table” and teams back up with his friends to take them down. Of course those same friends later betray John and the movie ends exactly where it began, with the entire assassin world out to kill John Wick.

The ending of this film promises the same thing the ending of the last one did: an all out war between Wick and the bureaucracy of murderers that seek to control his life. Narratively speaking, there doesn’t seem to be any real way to raise the stakes any higher than that — which is probably why the creative team behind “Chapter 3” decided to delay the final confrontation to “Chapter 4,” but that trick can only work once. If “Chapter 4” is simply a lead-in to “Chapter 5,” John Wick will have become the exact kind of franchise it was praised for not being. All men must die, even a seemingly immortal assassin.