With John Wick: Chapter 4 speeding into movie theaters like Keanu Reeves at the wheel of a doorless Mustang, it’s time to catch up on the first three John Wick movies (2014-2019). They’re a guaranteed gas for fans of choreographed brutality and anyone who enjoys wrestling with how a film can be both exhilarating and repugnant.
When the first Wick was released, flops like 47 Ronin had tarnished Reeves’ appeal. Enter directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who offered him an unlikely dose of career Rx: playing Wick, a retired assassin who returns to the New York underworld after a gangster murders his dog, a beagle puppy named Daisy.
Reeves, Leitch and Stahelski collaborated on the stunts in the Matrix films—and the action they concocted for Wick became almost as iconic as bullet time. To watch Reeves stalk his prey amid the blue light of a nightclub while Kaleida’s tantalizing “Think” plays on the soundtrack is to experience a cinematic high, buoyed by Leitch and Stahelski’s mastery of dreamy suspense.
After Leitch left the series, Stahelski pushed the carnage to crazed heights in John Wick: Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. It remains to be seen if Chapter 4 can top Parabellum’s climax, an eerie poem of blood and glass that pits Reeves against Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, the impossibly agile stars of The Raid 2.
Wick is as lethal as he is entertaining; Screen Rant calculated that he has killed 299 people over the course of the three films. Some are stabbed, but guns are Wick’s weapon of choice, from the diminutive (a Glock 26) to the hulking (a DTA Stealth Recon Scout).
Most action films involve firearms, but entire sequences rely on Wick shooting countless adversaries. And the slain don’t have a dead dog or Reeves’ stoic charisma to render them sympathetic, which underscores the unsettling point of the films: to use our built-in empathy for a movie star to make us essentially root for mass shootings.
I’m not starting a #CancelJohnWick campaign; a world without ethically dubious great art would be dull, and the supposed link between violence in movies and violence in life is still debated. Still, when nonstop onscreen gun deaths are normalized, moviegoers must ask the same question many ask Wick: All this for a dog? Peacock.