Some exciting stuff happened in 2014. It was the year we had the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil back when the United States could still qualify for these tournaments, and the viral Oscars selfie Ellen Degeneres took with Jackson Maine and Lupita Nyong’o’s brother. But above all else, 2014 was the year God gave us the gift of John Wick.
Can you believe it? It’s now been five years since we were first introduced to John Wick (played by a revitalized Keanu Reeves) in his eponymous film, an instantly iconic, infinitely rewatchable revenge tale about a legendary ex-hitman who single-handedly wipes out a Russian mob after some goons kill his puppy and steal his Ford Mustang. (Wars have been started over less, and that was a damn cute dog.) The following years have been good for the cult of Wick: a sequel in 2017 that featured, among many great moments, two hitman deaths via no. 2 pencil, and a third film coming in May in which John will possibly behead Los Angeles Clippers center Boban Marjanovic with a library book.
Another phenomenon in the wake of John Wick, as is often the case in Hollywood when it comes to something that’s earned mass acclaim and popularity, is a spate of imitators. (Here, it should be noted that John Wick isn’t fully original itself, owing a large debt to Hong Kong–style martial arts movies.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The latest, and perhaps most blatant, Wick copycat arrived this past Friday on Netflix: Polar, an action flick in which Mads Mikkelsen is a soon-to-be retired hitman who’s hunted down by his own organization. To be fair, Polar is based on a Dark Horse graphic novel—but also, to be fair, Netflix is transparently trying to market this movie to Wick enthusiasts. Considering I watched Polar the moment it arrived on the streamer, that strategy worked—though I was sorely disappointed to find out the film learned all the wrong lessons from its biggest influence.
But Polar isn’t the only Wick-like property to come onto the scene in the past five years, which begs the question: What, exactly, makes a John Wick movie a John Wick movie? Do its imitators need to follow certain guidelines? More to the point: Are there any non-John Wick action movies that stack up to the original thing? Using a highly scientific, five-question rubric, we’re going to access all the necessary ingredients of the John Wick films, and determine whether movies that could be perceived as so-called John Wick imitators live up to the same standards. Light spoilers for a few recent action films ahead.
Was the protagonist—preferably an assassin of some sort—coaxed out of retirement in anger?
A quick refresher: At the start of the first film, Jonathan Wick was out of the hitman game. After executing (no pun intended) an impossible assignment for Viggo Tarasov (the late Michael Nyqvist), he was granted retirement, which he hoped to spend with his wife Helen. Unfortunately, Helen died from some undisclosed terminal illness, but not before leaving him a puppy—a way for the despondent former hitman to learn to love again after suffering a terrible loss, through a very good boy.
But then dumbass Theon Greyjoy thought it’d be a good idea to break into John’s home, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car. It was only right that John get his revenge, and stop everyone—read: the entire Tarasov mafia—who even so much as pondered getting in his way, with a few helpful assists from Sniper Willem Dafoe.
This basic conceit—coming out of retirement because someone or something pissed the protagonist off—is a premise also shared by Polar and The Equalizer. In Polar, Mikkelsen’s Duncan Vizla is two weeks away from his 50th birthday, which is the age of retirement from his assassin organization, and he’s in line to receive an $8 million payout as part of his retirement package. However, the organization avoids paying its retired assassins by killing them beforehand (terrible human resources program, in my opinion), so the plan is to take out Duncan before he hits 50. [Whispers:] It doesn’t work.
In The Equalizer, Denzel Washington is Robert McCall, a retired intelligence officer who uses his particular set of skills after befriending a teen prostitute, Alina (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), he meets at a diner in Boston. As I’m sure you could surmise, he equalizes the things which require equalizing.
But revenge doesn’t always drive the protagonist of action movies, nor do highly stylized action movies focus only on retirees. Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde is a working spy who is not yet tapping into her 401K; in Hotel Artemis, several active members of the criminal underworld are trapped under one roof in Los Angeles; in The Accountant, Ben Affleck is an accountant. When watching movies you might think are John Wick movies, pay close attention to the employment status of the main characters—it’s quite crucial.
Does the protagonist have a fearsome reputation?
The moment when John Wick evolves into something genuinely special is early in the movie, when Viggo calls chop shop owner Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and asks why he slapped his son, Iosef (Alfie Allen). Viggo is set up to be an intimidating mafia boss, but the moment Aurelio explains what Iosef did to John Wick, he says “Oh,” hangs up the phone, and looks like he’s about to have a heart attack. Viggo all but concedes to his only son that he’s probably going to die because John Wick is mad at him. Now that is a reputation.
Duncan Vizla of Polar holds a similarly foreboding stature in his trade; one assassin seems to exist in the movie solely to tell the organization’s boss it’s probably a bad idea to try to assassinate Duncan because he’s such an exceptional hitman. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is, by all accounts, an elite spy in Atomic Blonde; someone you can trust will get the job done, even if at the start of the film you’re not entirely convinced where her allegiances lie.
Conversely, The Equalizer’s Robert McCall works best in anonymity—using the cover it gives himi to approach Alina’s pimp and his lackeys, then calmly dispatch them with assorted items at their hangout. They were basically dead before they knew what killed them. In Hotel Artemis, everyone carries a sordid reputation, but there are strict rules enforced by Nurse Jodie Foster that no killing is permitted on Artemis grounds. [Whispers.] That doesn’t last long. And in The Accountant, Ben Affleck is an accountant, and is known for being very good at crunching numbers; not as many people know he’s just as good at crunching human bones like they’re made out of tissue paper.
Is a beloved animal or person killed or in need of protection in the movie?
This is the crux of John Wick, something that needed to be handled delicately: How do you begin your movie with puppy murder and not get the audience to turn against your product? It worked, in part because John Wick established that its protagonist would wallow in sadness for a finite amount of time—like, approximately five seconds—before setting his sights on avenging his good boy in aesthetically pleasing, visceral fight scenes. The movie also ends with John Wick taking in a pitbull, extending the Wick-dog mythos into John Wick: Chapter 2. (Thankfully, the sequel eschewed a second heartbreaking dog death in favor of another reason to piss John off considerably: A metrosexual Italian dude blew up his house.)
This is where the majority of the Wick-like films share DNA with Wick—though most deal with people rather than animals. Robert McCall effectively comes out of retirement in The Equalizer to protect Alina from those who mean to harm her; Ben Affleck’s accountant in The Accountant takes it upon himself to protect fellow accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick, who honestly feels like she’s in an entirely different movie) from the CEO of her own company; Polar has Duncan befriend his neighbor in smalltown Montana, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), and when his organization kidnaps her, he’s thrust into saving her life. In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron is determined to protect a dossier—OK, nevermind, that movie doesn’t fit the criteria.
Anyway, Polar also commits a cardinal sin in attempting to Wick-ify an action movie: It has its protagonist kill a dog. Admittedly, this happens inadvertently: When Duncan arrives in Montana to begin his peaceful retirement, he gets a puppy that’s up for adoption and names it Rusty. Then when he falls asleep that night, the trauma from a lifetime of killing leads him to abruptly wake up and kill Rusty, who picked a very bad time to lick his foot. Seriously.
I get that Polar is doubling down on the depraved nature of working as an assassin; Duncan can’t so much as adopt a dog without the trauma of his profession coming back to haunt him. But there were countless other ways this could’ve been expressed, without killing a really cute dog. John Wick would never approve of this affront to good boys.
Does the movie establish a painstakingly detailed fictional universe?
John Wick knew how to build out its extremely ridiculous world. Through the first two movies, we learn that assassins are operating through a global hotel chain called the Continental, which provides services like medical care and weapon upgrades—all of which can be purchased through their own form of assassin currency, which is basically just big gold coins—and enforces a strict set of rules. (Just ask John Wick what happens if you disobey those rules.)
It was ludicrous, entertaining, and compelling enough that Starz is going forward with a Wick television series called The Continental, which will focus on its L.A. branch. Good world-building doesn’t necessarily have to make sense—it’s hard to imagine there is a syndicate of hitman hobos running around New York, or that the entirety of Central Park could be filled with assassins—but there does need to be 100 percent commitment to the bit.
Nearly every Wick-like movie has failed to match the minutiae of the franchise’s assassin underground, with one exception: Hotel Artemis. Drew Pearce’s film barely registers any action—it’s mostly just a bunch of criminals talking with one another in various rooms—but it does set up a locale that adheres to similar guidelines to the Continental. Hotel Artemis isn’t actually a hotel—it’s a hospital run by Jodie Foster where members with wrist implants are granted medical attention and temporary asylum. Artemis has three rules: no weapons are allowed, no non-members are permitted on hospital grounds, and nobody is allowed to kill each other. It’s not Continental-levels of great, but Hotel Artemis did try to establish a Wick-like assassin underground in miniature. Maybe next time, a movie with Wick-ian world-building can actually remember to provide the requisite action scenes.
How dope are the action scenes?
The world-building is great, the tête-à-têtes between Wick and other assassins is delightful, the red-and-purple palettes are pleasing to the eye—but if we’re being honest, the most important requirement to being a John Wick movie is owning incredible action sequences. These are what truly separated the John Wick movies upon release, things like the nightclub scene in the first movie, or the Common-starring battle in the subway in John Wick: Chapter 2, or the initial home invasion of the first flick that culminated with a local police officer nervously knocking on John’s door about a noise complaint and resigning himself to the fact the Baba Yaga might be working again.
John Wick and its sequel have the most consistent and preposterously entertaining fight scenes in recent years—a product of two former stuntmen working as the directors. (The only thing that might surpass it in recent years is Netflix’s The Night Comes for Us, and the latest Mission: Impossible’s bathroom brawl.) But its imitators also—literally—put up some good fights.
Both Equalizer films revel in Denzel Washington getting his hands dirty—of all things, the biggest problem is McCall’s scenes barely register as fights, because he easily dispatches everyone in his way. (Just ask poor Pedro Pascal in The Equalizer 2, who is subject to one of the most overt overkills in recent years.) And while it seemed for a while like The Accountant would solely be about the primal thrill of auditing a multimillion-dollar robotics company—not a complaint, crunch those numbers my man!—Ben Affleck eventually springs into action when Anna Kendrick’s character is attacked by several hitmen. (Even by Wick standards, Affleck’s Chris Wolff is an elite headshot specialist.)
But, of course, Atomic Blonde set the non-Wick, Wickian gold standard, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The film was directed by David Leitch, who codirected the first John Wick film along with Chad Stahelski. As evidenced by Atomic Blonde’s gruesome hallway fight scene stylized to look like a single take, the ex-stuntman hasn’t lost his touch.
All imitators are welcome, but if you’ve been reading closely you see it’s evident that nothing in the past five years of Western cinema has matched the hyperkinetic brilliance of the John Wick movies. Thus, though many movies have been described as being “John Wick movies,” the only John Wick movies are the John Wick movies themselves.
If it’s any consolation, some of these films come pretty close. The Equalizer franchise is 60 percent John Wick movie, having hit three of the five required criteria; Atomic Blonde ticked off two out of five (we’re not counting the dossier that needed protection, I’m sorry); Hotel Artemis ticked off just one box, but did one hell of a job with world-building; The Accountant had two of five, but gets an extra point for turning a man into both a living weapon and a dependable hand for filing tax returns; and we deducted points from Polar because Rusty the very good dog was killed—it gets [enlists Ben Affleck to crunch the numbers] zero points, and despite surface appearances, is as far from being a John Wick movie as can be.
Here’s a little more math for you: We’re just 107 days away from John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum. I can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that it’ll be a worthy John Wick film.