Hollywood doesn’t breed a ton of original ideas as much as it repeatedly mimics one thing that works. If Marvel can make the cinematic universe a multibillion-dollar enterprise, you bet other studios are going to follow suit—even if none of their efforts live up to the initial one.
There is a smaller-scale evolution happening in action movies, and it begins, once again, with Keanu Reeves. It was Reeves’s messianic turn in The Matrix that inspired a legion of mind-bending action flicks (albeit with characters who did not look like they were dressed up for a BDSM rave) like Minority Report, Source Code, and Inception. Now Reeves has turned heads and impressed Hollywood minds with John Wick, which in 2014 seemed to attain cultlike status from the moment people left the multiplex. It doesn’t take rocket science to explain why John Wick rules: It features surprisingly well-crafted world-building that doesn’t take itself too seriously; stunning red-and-purple palettes create a stylish backdrop that could also serve as gothic artwork; and, most importantly, it has unrivaled, brutal, clearly constructed action sequences.
John Wick did not invent gun fu, and what it borrowed can be attributed mainly to Hong Kong–style martial arts and Eastern cinema. But what mainstream Western audiences were most accustomed to from action movies in 2014 were the shaky-cam fights of the Jason Bourne franchise and the frenetic cutting of Liam Neeson’s Taken movies. In contrast, to watch the action scenes of John Wick—to see all the motions of a fight scene and have nearly every moment and punch and gunshot unobscured—was enlightening, and ridiculously fun.
There’s no reason to be opposed, then, to the current Wickification of Hollywood action movies if it begets fight scenes that match up to John Wick battling Common in the New York subway, or Wick killing two dudes with a pencil (two iconic moments from John Wick: Chapter 2). And in four years, we’ve seen a surprisingly diverse set of John Wick pastiches. One of the earliest Wickian entrants was the Key & Peele comedy vehicle Keanu, which tweaked the premise of the original John Wick—Wick’s adorable puppy is murdered by Russian thugs, putting John on a path of revenge—as two buddies go on a quest to retrieve an adorable kitten that Jordan Peele’s character named Keanu (... get it?). It’s not exactly subtle, but it is a rollicking Key & Peele sketch stretched out for a movie that mostly worked. It also featured a pre-breakout Tiffany Haddish, which was a nice bonus.
In the last few years, we’ve also seen movies that straightforwardly incorporate the revenge narrative of the Wick films. Wick’s puppy in the first film was a parting gift from his dying wife, a symbolic representation of her love that is violently torn from him. Movies like Upgrade and The Foreigner remove that thin subtext and just kill off protagonists’ family members to set them on their violent courses. The Foreigner proved that even an aged Jackie Chan can still deliver incredibly entertaining fight scenes; Upgrade made the most of its hard-R rating by nearly decapitating one goon with a kitchen knife. The lesson imparted was simple: Give these characters a (somewhat) justifiable reason to commit copious amounts of violence and make sure the ensuing action scenes are coherent and fun to revisit.
Atomic Blonde, meanwhile, isn’t as Wickian in its premise as much as its DNA. With that movie, director David Leitch, who codirected John Wick, swapped in ’80s Berlin as the setting and tossed in a Cold War–era espionage plot, while preserving the abundance of impressive action set pieces. A fight scene between Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton and a couple of Russians, shot to look like a single-take barreling through a couple of flights of stairs, is as technically impressive as anything from the John Wick franchise. (Don’t mind me, I’ll just be watching this on repeat.)
But up until this year, there hasn’t been a movie that’s attempted to imitate the John Wick universe itself; one where assassins have their own form of currency, a chain of international hotels that serve as assassin HQ, and where that hotel’s simple code of ethics mandates that nobody can kill people on its grounds, lest they be punished by Ian McShane. This weekend that will change with the release of Hotel Artemis, a film from Iron Man 3 writer Drew Pearce that has a deep bench of likable actors, including Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Sterling K. Brown, Jenny Slate, Brian Tyree Henry, and Jeff Goldblum. Hotel Artemis is set in a dystopian 2028 Los Angeles, where riots are manifesting across the city, the world is suffering from a water shortage, and Foster is the nurse of the titular hotel that also serves as a hospital for L.A.’s criminal population.
It is, in other words, a blatant knockoff of John Wick’s Continental—right down to the rules about killing on Hotel Artemis grounds and currency in the form of a wrist implant that assures hotel membership (in the John Wick universe, assassins can also get medical treatment at the Continental). The issue with Hotel Artemis isn’t so much its derivative Wickian concepts, but its failure to use the hotel backdrop as a through line for the film’s action. In fact, the movie barely features any fight scenes at all. It has one semi-epic set piece—when Sofia Boutella’s assassin takes out a legion of goons in a hallway—and one creative death via 3D printer; the rest of its time is spent on characters engaging in lengthy verbal spats. Instead of using the hotel to service the action, the hotel services … vaguely menacing threats from characters that we’re told should not be fucked with. Don’t just tell me why these characters are badasses, I want to see it for myself!
The John Wick universe’s greatest trick is how little it takes itself seriously—it doesn’t even try to make the Continental or the deep web of assassin-adjacent occupations believable. There is an unspoken agreement between the filmmakers and viewer that this is some cosmically dumb shit, like when John Wick: Chapter 2 ends with everyone in Central Park being revealed to be assassins waiting to kill Wick for breaking the Continental’s sacred rule. When it was announced that John Wick 3: Parabellum will feature a character called Tick Tock Man, my initial reaction was, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Because at its core, the John Wick series is pulp fiction that’s been dressed up in really nice, oft-tinted cinematography.
Hotel Artemis wants to have it both ways: a silly action caper where Charlie Day is a vaguely racist arms dealer (seriously, this cast is ridiculously deep!) that also exists in a ruminative, think-piece-ready dystopia crumbling apart around them. The real-life water crisis shouldn’t be ignored—but those politics also doesn’t need to be in a movie where Jeff Goldblum plays a mob boss called “The Wolf King.”
Artemis might be the most brazen—and least impressive—John Wick imitator, but if Hollywood’s impressionable history is any indication, it certainly won’t be the last. Major studios are often lambasted for misinterpreting what makes certain movies wildly popular: If people are really into cinematic universes, what if we did one for monster movies? That’s where Artemis failed—it took the wrong cues from the popular thing it aimed to replicate. Why John Wick is so beloved is simple: The action rocks. All future imitators, while your endeavors are welcome, please take note of this very simple rubric.