The John Wick Franchise and why you can have too much of a good thing.
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum wasn’t even in the cinemas a week before the announcement of John Wick 4, complete with release date, did the rounds all over the internet. Basically saying to the audience “sorry for all those yet to see what, a lot of us assumed, was the third part to a trilogy, but SPOILERS John Wick 3 resolves nothing and a 4th one is on its way. Rejoice! Rejoice! it’s not a trilogy… it’s a franchise!”
Apparently nobody told the social media team or the critics as this was posted the same day as the announcement to the official twitter feed:
Not that the critics care - they’ll say anything just to get on the poster - but John Wick is definitely not a trilogy. I believe it was, maybe, going to be, but make no mistake, having seen John Wick 3 last week, the decision to make a fourth one happened either during the frantic, deadline conscious writing session for the third one or once it was already in production. More on that later.
Actually, to go way back, I don’t think John Wick was even meant to be a trilogy and, whispers quietly, after seeing Chapter 3, I’m not sure it should’ve been. This is not because Chapter 2 and 3 are bad films, they are definitely not, but because the decision and demand to have, first, a trilogy and now a franchise - for, either, I assume, purely financial reasons or “we’re just having so much fun making these” reasons - has literally put a post against the character and story ankle of the John Wick films, swung the hammer and hobbled that fucker.
Sometimes, just sometimes Hollywood, and hear me out here - having a story to tell, albeit a generic action-y/comic book-y story should trump release dates and franchises. A revolutionary concept maybe, but should it be?
The first John Wick film, people seem to forget, was a relatively low-mid budget, one off, revenge sleeper hit. It had a beginning, middle and end, Wick as a character had a driving force, it featured some truly inspired action sequences and, much like Taken before it, didn’t require a sequel.
John Wick though was a success. A $20 Million budget yielded roughly $90 million in worldwide takings. Another lesson to Hollywood that profit is profit. If you make a film for $200 million plus, it has a much more daunting task to recoup close to $600 million dollars plus than a movie made for a 10th of that. Especially when, apparently, you can still make a damn amazing looking, action packed movie, shot on location in New York no less, starring not just one but a few names (Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane) for just $20 million dollars. When you consider that, why is there such a stigma against mid-budgeted films? why aren’t creative and interesting writers and directors being given $20-$40 million to make a movie?
Anyway, John Wick: Chapter 2 was greenlit and released in 2017, 3 years after the original. In a wise move, the writer, Derek Kolstad dug into the repercussions of Wick’s vendetta within the sprawling and colourful criminal underworld, only hinted at in the original - World building and new characters, that will pad out some running time and open up plenty of story avenues to go down - It also helps sell the enormity of the ending when the entire world is set against John Wick.
Chapter 2 succeeds because it establishes the rules, the network, the characters and the style of the world Wick inhabits, it tells a twisty-turny assassination/quest for power story within it and it’s all building to that iconic, scary and brilliant cliffhanger. Yeah there are a couple of creeping inconsistencies, yes the antique-meets modern world that the characters inhabit is achingly hip - from the incredibly attractive, highly tattooed switch board operators to the Banana Republic, hipster assassin squad at the end - and yes a few of the action sequences suffer from computer-game-itis but from a story continuation point of view, it’s pretty damn successful and satisfying.
The gamble paid off and on a doubled budget of $40 million, Chapter 2 more than doubled its worldwide takings and raked in $171 Million. Onward and upwards then as excitement mounted for, what I foolishly believed, was a conclusion to the trilogy.
The first thing to be noted about John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is that there are now multiple writers credited with the screenplay. This is never a good sign. Not that groups of writers can’t create something good and not that other, often uncredited, hands don’t touch or punch up damn near every screenplay produced but when you have a core creative team of Director Chad Stahelski, Star Keanu Reeves and Writer Derek Kolstad since the beginning, the appearance of 3 other writers: Shay Hatten and writing team Chris Collins & Marc Abrams can only ring alarm bells.
The reason for the extra writers could be many things but allow me to speculate wildly:
The turn around between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 was quicker and so Derek Kolstad brought on help to get it done.
Kolstad didn’t have a trilogy mapped out and so wasn’t sure where to go with part 3 and so brought in help.
Kolstad turned in a completed script for Chapter 3 that ended the trilogy and the producers, at some point, said “we want a part 4, this money train can’t end” and brought in writers to turn Kolstad’s script into one that could facilitate a cliffhanger and pursue a sequel.
I am going to make the case that it’s the 3rd reason and this is why - John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum starts really strongly with Wick having 40 minutes to run before his excommunication, coming under attack from a variety of assassins and then utilising the last remnants of his successful assassin life to call in a few, hail mary favours. Meanwhile the excellent Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator is confronting those who have helped Wick in his task and also sending her own ninja assassin hit squad, headed up by the welcome return to the big screen of the underappreciated Mark Dacascos, after Wick and, just about, everyone else in the New York syndicate of this impeccably dressed and incredibly well financed International underworld of assassins.
This all feels very much like Kolstad’s work and in keeping with the other two films. It flows well, it continues the story, it expands the world just a nudge and seems to be leading somewhere. I have to say that the raid on The Bowery (the, surely indispensable, homeless eyes and ears of this whole organisation in New York) seems utterly gratuitous and pointless on the part of The Adjudicator and the High Table. Replacing the fabulously over the top and clearly loving all this madness, Fishburne as their leader for helping Wick seems justifiable but destroying two thirds of your entire city network just to make a point? Do the High Table really have 100s more would-be assassins waiting in the wings to take their place?
Niggles aside, the first half of the film is the beginning of the third part of a trilogy I wanted. The stage is set for Wick and his ragtag band of allies and cast-outs to take down what, at this point, seems like a corrupt and power crazy High Table who don’t seem to get when they’ve won.
I know exactly when the executive marched in on Kolstad and said “we need a fourth part, predictions are showing high earnings for this one and we’re not about to slaughter this cash cow yet! make it so!” - Wick gets to Casablanca, meets up with Halle Berry and her dogs, we get a little back story about Wick getting Sofia’s daughter out of danger (which I suspect will now come back in a later film - never a bad thing to sprinkle stuff throughout a script you can pick up later should the need arise), then they go up and see the big mucky muck of Morocco and, in order to help Wick, of course, he wants one of Sofia’s dogs - yes it’s a great call back to the first one and what dogs mean to us in the absence of a wife or a child but that’s when the exec told the writer that they need a part four.
After that, predictably, all hell breaks loose. During the big fight that follows you can practically see Kolstad calling up other writers, sweating frantically and hoping the fight lasts long enough for him to think of a solution. A fight, by the way, that, more than ever, suffers from the tedious repetition and no stakes of watching your couch potato cousin play a computer game level on easy. Yes it’s a marvel of stunt work, acting, staging, cinematography and CGI, and you can certainly enjoy it on a production level but does it get the heart pumping? Not my, old, shriveled, black one it didn’t.
Everything after that is designed to draw this film out with inconsistencies, maddening plot swerves, new “convenient” rules, dizzying, super-human, rubber-man antics, a lack of tension and a climax which is more exhausting than thrilling. There’s even the invention of the man beyond the High Table, the convenient, one extra step Wick can take to get out of his predicament, filled with with baffling importance and mysticism that whiffs of Reeves wanting the franchise to suddenly be more like The Matrix or Man of Tai Chi or something.
The writers just keep scribbling themselves into corners or going back on initial set-ups to stretch all this stuff out and I don’t feel they really believe in the story they tell in the last act of the film. As I have said, this is because modern Hollywood wants franchises, it wants money, it demands it and story, character arcs and satisfactory resolutions are its devilish sacrifice.
However it’s also the fault of the writers. You could’ve concluded this one satisfactorily and still made a fourth one. You could’ve had them tear down the High Table and their allies in this and then make Chapter 4 be the rebuilding and jostling for power that would ultimately result from that. I mean TV shows stretch this crap out to 8 seasons sometimes, don’t pretend that concluding the first three John Wick films properly would’ve ended the possibilities of continuation for ever!
Now I know people will either flat out disagree because they loved Chapter 3 and all the whizz bangery that was on display (as did I, mostly) or they’ll point me to interviews where the writer claims that he always had a plot planned for 100s of John Wick stories, which, I am sure he does but that doesn’t change the fact that John Wick 3 takes a clear left turn half way through and messily ambles through its last act trying to come up with yet another, and this time way more ludicrous, cliffhanger ending. Also I can equally point to interviews with the Director (Chad Stahelski) where he openly admits him and Keanu Reeves did not even want to do a third one. People will say anything to make press junkets move on.
Despite loving the world it is set in, the actors involved, the practical stunts, the location shooting, the gorgeous cinematography and the more goofier elements of the humour, when Parabellum ended I didn’t think “YES I can’t wait for the fourth one”, I thought “Urgh there’s going to be a fourth one?!” and not because I won’t go and see it but because the story they tell with the third one doesn’t earn it but rather trips, bumbles, bumps into tables and endlessly crashes through glass display cabinets to force one.
I understand - people want to stay employed, audiences want to be entertained and money has always dictated decisions in show business, I’m not naive, I’m just a grumpy old man who is a bit sick of everything having to be a franchise.
In the past sequels were just bigger, louder versions of the original. Every few years, when we were in the mood for another Rambo or another Nightmare on Elm Street, one would come along. It was fine, accepted but we didn’t have any expectations or demands on them other than they delivered the requisite thrills and chills.
Nowadays, with the Marvel juggernaut having ploughed through the last 11 years producing a mix of great, action adventure classics, decent/ok but ultimately entertaining films and some stinkers that were just deemed necessary by the studio’s release schedules, every game in town is trying to be a universe or a franchise and, apart from Marvel, for the most part, they are all failing miserably. I applaud the John Wick films for trying to grow their world gradually and do something different with an action franchise but, in general, I wish they didn’t always have to go into another film without fully working out the plot and the script first - even if that means pushing your precious release dates a little further off.
Outside of my old man grumbling about the fact that scripting has slowly become a thing of the past, I did really enjoy it for what it was. I just didn’t love it like I loved the first one and learnt to love the second one. My comments are not meant to diminish the sheer film-making skill involved in bringing these films to light and I would never accuse them of not being exceptionally well made films but I will say one thing, and this goes for almost every blockbuster movie out there today, someone needs to score this shit so much better!! When your hero is riding a fucking horse through NYC taking out ninja bikers, why on earth isn’t there some heroic, insane orchestral bombacity happening? Where’s John Williams or Brian Tyler when you need them? Why is it Alan Silvestri hasn’t come up with a score as good as Back to the Future since?
Anyway, it’s a shame they didn’t go the trilogy route, there’s such a good one there, lurking amongst the mumbo jumbo philosophy and endless gun fu but I fear the keepers of the Wick franchise can’t see the targets for the neon lights and endless fucking mirrored surfaces!
Ultimately, what do I know though? As I sit writing this John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (Prepare for war… prepare for endless sequels, more like) has made $182,380,834 in two weeks on a $55 million dollar budget. The writer, Derek Kolstad, is also attached to The Continental a TV Series “set in the John Wick world”. So nobody cares about my diatribe on the integrity of story and my railing against the financial machinations of the studios, the audience just wants more! more! more! So give it to them Hollywood, give it to them until they choke on it.