It’s exceedingly rare in the social media age to go into a movie with little knowledge of what it’s about. The last time that happened for me was on October 24, 2014, the day John Wick was released. I was still in college, and my friend had been assigned to review the film for our student paper; he wanted someone to tag along, and there really isn’t much else to do in Ithaca, New York. Heading into the theater, there was, at most, some earnest if not bad faith bewilderment from digital outlets about how this new Keanu Reeves vehicle had achieved a 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But that was it. Not knowing a single thing about John Wick, and coming to the sudden and shocking realization that Theon Greyjoy had just killed the puppy belonging to the most infamous hitman in the history of the Russian mob—accompanied by a notable shower shot of Keanu’s back covered in gnarly tattoos before he broke open a chest of assault weapons and beguiling gold coins stored under his basement’s concrete floor—is an experience I’ll cherish forever. From that moment forward, and after a disconcerting amount of rewatches of both John Wick and its sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, I’ve become a proud member of the Cult of Baba Yaga. (We are legion, and we respect the rules established on Continental grounds!)
Want to join me, or simply want a refresher for all things Wick before John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum arrives this weekend? Let’s dive into the blessedly absurd world of John Wick: its principal characters, balletic fighting scenes, surprisingly intricate assassin underworld enterprise, good dogs, and all the other miscellaneous things that have turned it into one of the greatest action franchises of all time.
Who Is John Wick?
Jonathan “John” Wick is, at the start of the first film, a retired professional hitman who operated under the Tarasov Mob. John was the best of the best, a killer with a sterling reputation and the nickname Baba Yaga, or Boogeyman. When John wanted to retire from the hitman life to settle down with his soon-to-be-wife, Helen, Tarasov head Viggo (played by the late, great Michael Nyqvist), gave him an impossible task: kill all of his enemies in a single night. Which the Baba Yaga did, because he rules. (Lord willing, one day this franchise will show exactly what happened that fateful night, which presumably included approximately 20,000 improbable headshots.)
Wick’s retirement plans were cut tragically short after Helen died from an undisclosed terminal illness. But Helen left John with a parting gift: a puppy named Daisy, who provided John the chance to learn to love again instead of wallowing in a state of perpetual mourning, or worse yet, going back to a life of killing. It worked, for a time, until Viggo’s fuccboi son Iosef (Alfie Allen) thought John’s 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 was kickass (fact check: it is), broke into his home to steal it, and killed his new puppy in the process. For Wick newcomers reading this: Yes, it’s really awful, and many repeat viewings don’t make the scene any less excruciating. (Also yes, it is a massive coincidence that John has a run-in with his old boss’s son, but fate is a sneaky theme running throughout the series.) Thankfully, this brutal act incites a swift and satisfying chain of events; Iosef unleashed the full rage of the Baba Yaga.
In an incredible preview of the impending carnage, Iosef is slapped by chop shop owner Aurelio (John Leguizamo) for stealing the car. When Viggo calls Aurelio in a threatening manner to figure out why his son was disrespected like that, Aurelio says that Iosef beat up John, stole his car, and killed his dog. “… Oh” is the only thing Viggo can muster, his face paralyzed with fear. He then basically tells Iosef, “Sorry, son, but you’re, like, going to die now and it was nice knowing you.”
While John is a perfect character with a dry sense of humor and an affinity for dogs, someone who respects people who’ve always been good to him—such as New York Continental manager Winston and Aurelio—it’s best to view his reemergence from a brief retirement less as the return of a vengeful hitman and more as the arrival of an infallible angel of death. Viggo’s reluctant admission that his son would die wasn’t pessimism, it was acceptance. The same goes for the main antagonist of John Wick: Chapter 2, Santino D’Antonio, who blows up John’s house and puts a bounty on his head that has dozens of assassins seeking the reward. It doesn’t matter who—or how many whos—you try to throw against John Wick. You can’t kill the Boogeyman.
The John Wick Universe As It Pertains to Dogs
Thankfully, the John Wick universe doesn’t merely use a poor puppy to kick-start its endless mayhem: Dogs have become an intrinsic part of the franchise’s DNA, which has in turn been lovingly parodied. (See Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Keanu, and the viral YouTube video “Dog Wick.”) At the end of the first film, John “adopts”—as in, goes to an animal clinic to treat a wound and comes out with an adorable pitbull who was set to be euthanized—a new dog, which mercifully survives his home getting bombed in the sequel. The dog sticks around for the second and third films, mostly hanging out at the New York Continental, despite the hotel’s apparent no pets policy. (The concierge, played by Lance Reddick, takes a real liking to the pup.)
But it’s the third John Wick film that does what honestly feels preordained: The dogs get in on the action. Halle Berry’s newcomer, Sofia, is an assassin who runs the Moroccan Continental branch—and most importantly, she’s always flanked by two loyal Belgian Malinois. These are big boys, so you already know what’s coming. TACTICAL DOGS!!!!!!
Berry herself trained the dogs for months so that she would effectively be the one giving the pooches orders during the film’s fight scenes. As Reeves told Stephen Colbert last week, he was instructed not to make eye contact with the dogs when they were flanking Berry in a scene. Intense? Yes. The perfect extension of John Wick’s enduring love of canines? Also yes.
Who Are the Other Characters of Import?
Wick aside, the film’s universe is composed of many other eccentric figures. And regardless of whether they’re set up as Wick’s friend or foe, you can be certain they’re lethal with a 9mm in their hand. Here’s who you ought to know about, and where their allegiances stand as it pertains to the Baba Yaga:
Winston (Ian McShane)
Profession: Manager of the Continental Hotel in New York
Relationship to John: Friendly
Best scene: Executing Ms. Perkins for violating Continental rules (more on that later)
Winston, who endearingly refers to Wick as “Jonathan,” is one of John’s closest allies throughout the franchise. He rarely leaves the orbit of his Continental, but has a vast network of contacts and constantly knows the whereabouts of John and other assassins. Little is known about how Winston came to run the Continental, or what his background is. (Presumably, given his position, he’s a former assassin himself.) Some fans believe the reason he has such a close, mentor-like relationship with John is because he is Helen’s father, but that’s just speculation. (But hey, I like where your heads are at.)
Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist)
Profession: Mob boss
Relationship to John: Hostile
Best scene: Telling his son that he’s definitely gonna die ’cause he pissed off John Wick (this is art).
Viggo easily could’ve been a one-dimensional foil to Wick in the first film, but he’s much more interesting than that. Viggo has tremendous respect and fear for John and his abilities—as evinced by the instantly iconic “… Oh” scene—and that colors all the moments he and John share together. Viggo is understandably dismayed when John kills his only son, and reacts by torturing and killing Marcus, one of Wick’s closest friends. For that, John turns his attention to Viggo; shockingly, it doesn’t work out well for him.
Iosef Tarasov (Allen)
Relationship to John: HE KILLED HIS PUPPY
Best scene: When he dies.
Status: Extremely dead
Proshchay, Iosef! And you thought Theon Greyjoy was bad.
Marcus (Willem Dafoe)
Relationship to John: Friendly
Best scene: Saving John from a stealth assassination attempt at the Continental
Marcus and John had history together, and while the background of their friendship is left intentionally vague, it was undoubtedly forged through their mutual prowess for killing people. (It’s suggested they might have served together in the Marine Corps, since John has a Marines tattoo on his body.) When Iosef put out a contract on John’s head in the first film, he offered it personally to Marcus, who accepted it. However, he frequently helped John on his quest to avenge his dead puppy instead of killing him, and when Viggo learned of Marcus’s betrayal, he was tortured and killed. Rest in power, Marcus!
Profession: Continental Hotel concierge
Relationship to John: Friendly
Best scene: Anytime he hangs out with John’s pit bull
Charon is a concierge at the Continental who clearly admires John, and has a genteel demeanor perfectly suited for a fancy, ostentatious hotel. Given that Charon works in the heart of an assassin underground, you get the feeling he’d really kick ass in a fight. Alas, he has mostly been assigned to running the front desk and greeting people who enter the premises. Perhaps the franchise is saving a Charon fight scene for a rainy day.
Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio)
Profession: Crime boss
Relationship to John: Hostile
Best scene: When John refuses to accept an offer presented to him by Santino, who then blows up his house.
Santino is the answer to an eternal question: What if John Wick’s foe were the most metrosexual Italian man on the planet? Santino also blows up John’s home and puts a giant bounty on his head. His ignorance is his most entertaining quality: Santino thought he could double-cross John after the hitman executed a really difficult task and get away with it. [Narrator voice.] Santino did not get away with it.
The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne)
Profession: The King of all New York hobos
Relationship to John: Friendly
Best scene: I wish I could tell you but it happens in Parabellum and I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Yes, Morpheus himself shows up in John Wick: Chapter 2, where it’s revealed that most—if not all—of the homeless people in Manhattan are actually working for him. This vast network of hobos allows the Bowery King to be, in his own words, “all seeing and all knowing.” Basically, he’s the Lord Varys of the John Wick universe. His “little birds” are also, in fact, actual pigeons he loves to caress in a very strange, possibly erotic way. In Parabellum, the Bowery King compares his use of carrier pigeons to social media. (Did I mention this is the greatest franchise ever built?)
Relationship to John: Hostile
Best scene: Sharing a drink with John in the Rome branch of the Continental
After John takes out the woman he’s assigned to protect in Chapter 2, Cassian makes it his mission to hunt John down and kill him. He gets closer than most assassins do in this franchise—and earns the rare distinction of not being killed onscreen by John, who leaves him in a subway car with a knife lodged in his chest as a “professional courtesy.” (The implication being that once Cassian eventually gets around to removing it from his chest he’ll die, which, while I’m not a medical expert, checks out.) Sorry, Common, I’m well aware you love AI, but that won’t help you against the Baba Yaga.
Other Things to Know About the Assassins’ Underground World
If John is the LeBron James or Thanos of assassins, well, that implies there’s a ton of other people operating inside this lucrative industry. Indeed, the John Wick universe is teeming with assassin-related activity in an elaborate and sophisticated underground world. Here are the important definitions to know:
The Continental (n.) — A chain of hotels that serves the criminal underworld, with confirmed locations in New York (John’s base of operations), Rome (as seen in John Wick 2), Morocco (John Wick 3), and Los Angeles (the basis for a forthcoming TV series on Starz). Within the confines of the Continental, one strict rule is enforced: no killing. The hotel also provides other services for the assassins aside from lodging: tailored suits for “tactical” engagements; sommeliers who, in lieu of fine vintages, extol the virtues of myriad assault weapons; and cartographers who provide maps and blueprints for local municipal structures.
Excommunicado (n.) — After Wick kills Santino at the Continental, he is excommunicado—declared persona non grata and relieved of access to all the Continental’s services around the globe. The High Table places a bounty on his head that effectively pits every assassin against him. For all other assassins, being excommunicado is a death sentence—for John Wick, it is a fun challenge.
Gold coins (n.) — They don’t even have a name, but the gold coins are the vague, somewhat inconsistent currency that John and other assassins use to procure a variety of services within their underground networks. Gold coins have been used for things as disparate as bar tabs, corpse removal, lodging, and weapons upgrades. All these services typically have the same fixed cost, which seems illogical but perhaps speaks to the franchise’s intent to focus on the power of the individual instead of accrued wealth for better services. It evens the playing field. Yes, I’m taking this as seriously as it should be. For a more detailed breakdown of Wickian currency, check out this piece on The Ringer from Matt Hartman.
The High Table (n.) — A 12-person council of crime lords that oversees the criminal underground. To the best of our knowledge, admittance into the High Table can only be inherited from a member of a powerful and established crime family. For instance: The reason Santino activates John’s marker is so that he can kill Santino’s sister, Gianna, so he may take her place on the High Table. And as a consequence for murdering Santino on Continental grounds, John doesn’t just have to face off against a bunch of assassins in John Wick 3—he has to go up against The Man that’s enforced all the rules in the first place.
Markers (n.) — A larger coin signifying a blood oath between two assassins. In John Wick 2, John owes Santino a blood oath, as Santino helped John complete Viggo’s impossible task. All blood oaths are tracked and supervised via the Continental.
The Action of John Wick
I could sit here and luxuriate in all the reasons the John Wick franchise has some of the best action in Western cinema; the way it infuses Hong Kong–style martial arts with patented gun-fu and streamlines the action through clean compositions that allow the viewer to know exactly what’s going on through every visceral fight scene. (It helps that the franchise is helmed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who codirected the first movie, as both filmmakers are former stuntmen who understand how to make the sequences click seamlessly without dispensing any of the thrills.) But it’s easier—and probably way more fun—to show, rather than tell. Here are four alluring, vicious GIFs from the first two installments to explain why John Wick is my One True Action Movie God:
Your eyes did not deceive you: John Wick dispatched two men with a single no. 2 pencil. (Hey, they did foreshadow it!) And these GIFs are just the tip of the iceberg.
According to George Hatzis, a Sydney-based designer who runs the website Visu, John Wick has killed 205 people on-screen: 77 in the first movie and 128 in the second. Given the upward trajectory of the franchise, and through an unscientific lens of the carnage in Parabellum, I’m willing to guess the death count reaches even greater heights in that film and beyond.
Just as the clock is perilously ticking before John Wick’s excommunicado sentence takes effect, we are mere hours away from the first screenings for Parabellum on Thursday night in the United States. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were eagerly awaiting the endgame; the Cult of Baba Yaga has been waiting for John, good dogs, bizarre subtitle fonts, the minutiae of assassin underground hotel management, and innumerable headshots. We’ve laid dormant since John Wick: Chapter 2 dropped in 2017. But now? YEAH, I’M THINKING WE’RE BACK.