Oh, hello! Just a casual drop-in to rank the first three movies in the JOHN WICK universe. After a recent rewatch, I tweeted my ranking, and it started a fun conversation on Twitter. But since all conversations are more fun when they’re not on Twitter, let’s bring the discourse here.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 > JOHN WICK > JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3
Until Twitter informed me otherwise, I assumed that all the cool dudes would revolt at the idea that anything other than the pure, straightforward adrenaline of the original film should be in first place. And JOHN WICK is nearly perfect: elegant in its simplicity, with already highly evolved action and the best (only?) sense of humor of any of the films. It also boasts the most frequent usage of the nickname “Baba Yaga,” and I like my Keanus sad, vengeful, and repeatedly referred to as the Russian boogeyman. It’s also the only JOHN WICK movie with Willem Dafoe, which is obviously to its credit.
But it’s got a couple of weak spots for me on rewatch: while Michael Nyqvist is a respectable foe as Viggo, it’s a little embarrassing to see the likes of Alfie Allen and Adrienne Palicki go up against Baba Yaga. Also the action in the Red Circle nightclub – the film’s biggest setpiece – starts to lose my attention after a while. JOHN WICK’s fights and gunplay are better served by more intimate scenes. These are barely complaints, to be clear, they’re only clarifications for my ranking.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 brings back all the stuff we loved from JOHN WICK (except “Baba Yaga” as a catchphrase) – dogs! Keanu shooting stuff in slim-fitting suits! John Leguizamo! – and develops it, deepens it. There’s something to be said for the restraint the first film shows in its glimpses at the larger assassin organization, with everything from the coins to The Continental to the cop who pleasantly allows John to go about his business after seeing several dead bodies on the floor all hinting at a tantalizing world hiding just out of frame. But listen, I don’t watch action movies for restraint. CHAPTER 2 brings us inside a strange, beautifully structured network of assassins, this mysterious system of connections maintained by Rosie the Riveter-styled operators, an underground chain of homeless spies led by goddamn Laurence Fishburne, and a treacherous system of debts and repayments. It rules.
John’s adversaries are far more worthy here, too. Riccardo Scamarcio’s Santino works as a foil for John because he’s everything John isn’t: he has no integrity, no code, and he doesn’t do anything for himself. The hinted-at mutual respect between John and Gianna (Claudia Gerini) makes her death both tragic and outrageously badass. Common’s Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares are two of the best henches I’ve ever seen in any action movie. I’d happily follow either on their own adventures that have nothing to do with John. And JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beloved character actors: Leguizamo, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick all return from the first film in fine form, and they’re met by Peter Stormare, Franco Nero and – best of all – Peter Serafinowicz in my favorite shopping montage of all time (this, from a woman who knows her shopping montages).
So that brings us to JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM, whose first sin is in a title with multiple punctuation marks. (Also it boasts the most frequent usage of the word “fealty,” which is not nearly as cool as “Baba Yaga.”) For the record, I still really like PARABELLUM; the universe is enriched by the addition of Halle Berry and her attack dogs, as well as Anjelica Huston’s organized crime ballet. (Worth noting: the clues that The Director’s operation drops about John’s past recall those more subtle nods to a deeper world we got in JOHN WICK, without spelling anything out for us.) And PARABELLUM offers the best use yet of McShane and Reddick. Reddick’s Charon in particular is underutilized in the first two films and perfectly employed here.
But the movie falls into the trap of so many sequels: more, more, more! Audiences liked the mythology of CHAPTER 2? Let’s triple it! Asia Kate Dillon’s The Adjudicator is an extremely cool character given the absolute most boring tasks in this movie. The High Table doesn’t feel real enough to be scary, and I deeply don’t need to see those enigmatic gold coins being made. It’s like a HUNGER GAMES prequel – who asked for this? And the pacing’s all off here, making it feel like four separate movies: the first part feels like CHAPTER 2 (so obviously that’s the best part), then there’s the Ruska Roma stuff (very cool), then Casablanca and the desert (yes to the first, no to the second), then the big finale back at The Continental. It doesn’t all jibe together, and at 2 hours 11 minutes, not enough time is spent on narrative connective tissue.
Still, the action is unimpeachable: the library fight? The battle at the antique weapons museum?! John Wick racing down a busy New York City street, on a damn HORSE, shooting nefarious motorcyclists??? I’ll never forget the way I felt, seeing that scene for the first time in the trailer. I might have cried. I definitely screamed.
That’s the thing with the JOHN WICK movies – even the weakest one is a gift. JOHN WICK 4 has been bumped to 2022 (hamstringing our collective hope for a National Keanu Reeves Day now that it’s no longer joining THE MATRIX 4 in May 2021), and wherever it ends up in my ranking, there’s very little question that I’ll love it more than most any other movie. I’m in for a penny and a pound when it comes to this world.
All right, put on your little ranking hats in the comments. (Also, bye guys! It’s been nice hanging with you again.)