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Everyone Wants to Be Like (John) Wick

Reflecting on the franchise’s rise to mainstream prominence, ‘John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum’ is a raucous look at the assassin’s popularity in his underground world

Summit/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

“It’s an honor to fight with you, Mr. Wick.”

By the time someone says this in John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, the tragically unretired hitman (played by Keanu Reeves) has already killed a countless number of assailants—with guns, knives, a book about Russian folklore, the list goes on. It’s been such an endless onslaught that even John Wick is gassed. On his back, panting—having recently discovered what it truly means to be declared “excommunicado” by the global assassin syndicate the High Table—John is vulnerable, as two assassins stand over him ready to deliver a fatal blow. But then they help him to his feet; turns out, they’re huge fans.

It’s a meta moment in a movie packed with them. For starters, these two unnamed assassins are played by the Indonesian pencak silat maestros Yayan Ruhian (better known as Mad Dog from The Raid) and Cecep Arif Rahman, Parabellum’s hat tip to the myriad fighting techniques it employs. (Martial artist Tiger Chen, who starred in Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, also makes an appearance.) Morpheus himself is in this franchise, and beyond that there’s a clever nod to The Matrix and its former star Reeves. But Parabellum’s biggest piece of meta-commentary is the mere fact that John Wick is no longer a mythical figure who stalks the shadows like the boogeyman. He’s a full-blown celebrity—even in his own twisted world.

Before John Wick became a purchasable skin in Fortnite—yes, that’s a real thing—this franchise arrived in 2014 with almost zero fanfare. Reeves’s career had floundered since The Matrix trilogy, and without any pre-established IP to lean on, John Wick was facing an uphill box office battle. But from the moment the film was released, it seemed to inspire a cultlike fascination. John Wick’s instant greatness and ardent fandom wasn’t indebted to any one thing, but a combination of its eccentricities, from the stunningly choreographed fight scenes to the revenge tale that hinged on avenging a puppy, the rules-obsessed assassin hotel overseen by Ian McShane, and the stoic charisma of its star. Wick’s reputation preceded him, and before long, the Baba Yaga had developed a large fandom.

As any prospective action franchise that outperforms box office expectations is wont to do, John Wick returned with a sequel in 2017 that was bigger and more ambitious, and that also extended its bizarro assassin underworld mythos. Instead of hearing about John Wick killing people with a pencil, this time audiences got to see it. They were also introduced to the Rome branch of the Continental, and to a manager who asked Wick, with utter sincerity and trepidation, whether he was in the city to kill the Pope. (He breathed an understandable sigh of relief when John said he wasn’t, because obviously, if Wick wanted to take out the Pope, nobody would’ve been able to stop him.) The final scene of John Wick: Chapter 2—when McShane’s Winston informed Wick that he was “excommunicado,” banned from all Continental services and subject to a global bounty of $14 million—heavily implied that every person in Central Park was an undercover assassin. John Wick jumped the shark, then turned around and shot it in the head. Twice.

Parabellum begins moments after the second film ends, with John hurriedly making his way through the city, with only an hour before the excommunicado order will take effect and more enemies than ever will come knocking. The tragic irony of the franchise is that John sought a life away from killing with his wife, Helen. Even as a widower—Helen died of a vague terminal illness to kick-start the first film—he was committed to raising the puppy she gifted him and living in peaceful anonymity. But then a guy who looked a lot like Theon Greyjoy messed that all up and awoke a sleeping giant.

Parabellum, rather bleakly, suggests that John will never find the solace he once sought; instead of celebrating life and love, he’s an angel of death. And that distinction, in a world run by a shadow government of assassins and their series of important rules, makes him the biggest mainstream hitman on the planet. Assassins would love to cash the bounty on John’s head, but more than anything, they just wanna meet the guy. They wanna be Allen Iverson crossing up Michael Jordan. That’s why, when those two assassins get the chance to kill Wick so early in the fight, they don’t want the tussle to end just yet. They were so looking forward to it.

This evolution from mythical shadow to assassin celebrity runs in tandem with the franchise’s evolution. Five years ago, John Wick was a $20 million flick that became an obsession for action buffs. It was lovingly parodied by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. Now, like its broadened commercial appeal, Parabellum is a self-aware blockbuster, complete with increasingly extravagant set pieces and an implicit understanding that everyone—the insatiable audience, the assassins its world is composed of—is here to see John Wick and all that he’s capable of. He’s like those Chuck Norris memes, except everything you hear about him is actually true.

If the franchise keeps going—a possibility that, minor spoiler alert, Parabellum gleefully sets up—the things the seemingly immortal Wick endures will have to continue to grow bigger in scope, and more impressive in execution. This is a real First World problem for an action franchise to have—it means people still care. Like the Fast & Furious franchise and its inevitable space adventure, though, John Wick still has plenty of avenues to explore. It helps that the franchise has enough self-awareness to know what the fans want out of it, and that Wick’s legend should continue to grow in his own world. After every stunning fight scene and improbable headshot, it’s little wonder John Wick has the unrivaled respect and admiration of his peers.

“Hey John, that was a pretty good fight, huh?” another assassin asks him when they go their separate ways. Like him, we’re all just happy to be witnesses to greatness.