The original 2014 John Wick is one of the best action movies of the 2000s—if not ever. For me, that comes down to three core pillars: The neo-noir style, the mysterious and fascinating world of the movie as well as its simple and perfectly executed story, and it’s exhilarating ‘gun-fu’ action. With the success of the original, a sequel was always going to happen even if the story concluded definitively, but with the original crew and returning star Keanu Reeves, the end product was actually more solid than I expected—not as exceptional as the first, but not another tired retread of what the original was trying to accomplish. Now, armed with the knowledge that a trilogy was going to happen, the crew can craft a final third part that would make John Wick go down in movie history as one of the best action trilogies ever made; to that end, they have managed to ‘complete’ their great trilogy and it will go down in movie history as one of the best action trilogies of all time. However, John Wick Chapter Three is also a disappointing experience; of the three core pillars mentioned before, the third movie elevates, expands, and improves its style and signature action, but it takes a huge nosedive in terms of its world and writing quality.
In order to assess Chapter Three though, we have to take a look at what came before it and how they differ in the writing department. The original John Wick’s plot is something of a running joke amongst fans and the creators of it; John Wick causes all sorts of mayhem for a dog and for a car. While that is literally true, I feel that is a disservice to the plot of the first movie; the first John Wick is not a movie with a deep and poignant story, but it is a movie about tired clichés made to work in favor of the other two core pillars (style and action). Yes, it uses a cheap trick of having an adorable puppy care for an owner who doesn’t want it at first, who then warms up to it and then loses it, as a story device and as a time-saving method of getting the audience to care about the protagonist, but it works because what follows is awesome, the horrendous act of killing a puppy makes us feel mad and want revenge (like John), and it allows the neo-noir aesthetic to be thematically appropriate as well. Similarly, the “assassin that retires for a woman who then dies and goes on a revenge rampage” is, again, a tired cliché, but it allows the other two core pillars to thrive; the movie relishes its chances to make John Wick into the mythical Baba Yaga through the terrified people he’s chasing, and simultaneously wastes no time in getting the action going while also giving a reason for why John Wick is able to pull off the moves he attempts.
John Wick Chapter Two is where the ‘writing’ pillar starts to show a few cracks, but stands strong and supports the other two nonetheless; since this was a sequel and with the definitive conclusion of the first movie, it was pretty clear that the team was going to have to insert a few elements into the world in order to get John Wick back into the game. However, for every blood oath pendant, there was careful planning not to get sidetracked and lose focus; even if John Wick is more ‘passive’ in Chapter Two, he still has control of what happens and what happens still surrounds him. Yes he is forced back into action, but he initially resists; he knows that if he succeeds his impossible task death awaits him, but he still tries to get the peace he longs for. What saves Chapter Two for me is the better writing ‘flair’ with which this passiveness and reactionary stance is portrayed in (at least making it feel more active and more interesting), and one of the most defining scenes of the movie being John Wick’s active and entirely personal decision—shooting Santino in the head while he smugly eats dinner at the Continental. Bad guy wins his mental fight with the protagonist and the movie ends with a climactic scene following of Wick running through a city full of assassins waiting for the time they can get their hands on him and his impeding massive bounty; not the most definitive ending, but it felt like a proper ending nonetheless, building the suspense and ending on a cliffhanger that only made you excited for the third movie.
So, where does John Wick Chapter Three goes wrong? In my view, Chapter Three makes two vital mistakes (or better described as directing decisions): First up, they made John Wick into a ‘passive’ protagonist, by making the story, the pacing, and the action be at the whims of other characters; besides the opening 15-20 minutes (where John is chased by half of New York), the rest of the plot advances through actions other characters make, instead of John. Sofia makes a choice that ensues a prolonged (and awesome) action set-piece, Winston makes a choice that means the movie can actually happen and not end after an hour; John literally makes only a couple of choices and the significant one is immediately walked back when a character asks him if he really wants to do what he said (and sacrificed something dear to him, in order to be afforded the chance to do it) he was going to do. Lastly, John Wick Chapter Three is a movie with many visions and none are well executed; there’s the vision of “choices and consequences” where John deals with the aftermath of his decisions, the vision of John’s desperate attempts to avoid the unavoidable, the vision of the movie simply cutting ties and giving rise to new ideas and characters. None of these visions are well established or explored, none are particularly well executed, and none are the primary contextual tool for the viewer to enjoy the action through, which makes the movie feel inconsistent and inconsequential.
In reality, writing is not a ‘core’ pillar of the John Wick franchise (sorry, I lied!); instead think of the style and action as pillars, but the writing as the dirt. Yes, the structure is solid because of the pillars, but if the ground that you build on is beginning to crack, then you are still in trouble. My disappointment with John Wick Chapter Three does not come because of the quality of what I want from the franchise—action and style are steadily rising and each movie is better than the last in that regard. What makes the John Wick franchise great is the action and the style, but what makes it excellent is that they write good stories as well—simple stories that we’ve seen before, but well done and with consistency in what matters. I still enjoyed John Wick Three and I’m pretty excited for what’s to come, but I hope that the third movie is just a necessary wrong in order to have many more rights (or an isolated mistake), because it would be a shame if the John Wick franchise is to become known as “great”, when it could have been lauded as “excellent”.