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Keanu Reeves as John Wick, standing in profile in front of red lights. Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate

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5 lessons from John Wick’s mega success I assume Hollywood won’t take

Instead of John Wick clones, or even spinoffs, how about just using the film as inspiration?

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

John Wick: Chapter 4 put a button on Keanu Reeves’ assassin adventures for now, but the series isn’t slowing down: The fourthquel pulled in $73.5 million in the U.S. over its opening weekend, with a global haul of $137.5 million — a franchise best.

Still, Chad Stahelski, who directed all four installments of Wick, tells Polygon he’s done for now, with plans to move on to either a Ghost of Tsushima movie, a take on Rainbow Six with Michael B. Jordan, or a Highlander reboot possibly starring former Superman Henry Cavill. As for Reeves, he’s set to appear in 2024’s John Wick spinoff Ballerina, but currently has no plans to directly continue the series. Lionsgate and Peacock are hoping the upcoming TV series The Continental, planned for later this year, might satiate the audience’s hunger. The show will prequelize the movies by following a young version of Ian McShane’s Winston as he gets into the assassin hotelier game. That isn’t exactly Reeves back in the suit, but it’s something.

John Wick 4’s success raises obvious questions: Can Lionsgate lure Stahelski and Reeves back for more brain-melting choreographed gun-fu? Is there a franchise without them? How long will we have to wait for John Wick 5? But maybe the better question is: When is John Wick’s success going to make an impact on Hollywood? Where are the John Wick-likes? Where are the movies blindsiding us with their singular vision?

John Wick objectively changed action movies. In their directorial debut, Stahelski and David Leitch were able to put stunt and fight choreography skills honed at their company 87eleven Action Design front and center, thanks to a lead whose physical prowess could match the directors’ ambition. The success of the film and its sequels rubbed off on cinematic action — from James Bond movies to Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Wick-style close-quarters combat was en vogue. John Wick’s enthusiastic reception also let Leitch put his stamp elsewhere: Afterward, he plugged Charlize Theron into the Wickian Atomic Blonde, then jumped into spectacle with Deadpool 2, the Fast and Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, and the hand-to-hand-combat-heavy Bullet Train.

But after nine years of John Wick’s influence, I’m skeptical of whether Hollywood studios have learned any lessons about why these movies rock, and why the audience clearly wants more. It’s one thing to have other action stars ape Reeves’ moves, but it’s another to map the franchise’s genome in order to establish a science of original and enthralling entertainment. There is more going on under the surface of John Wick: Chapter 4 than Reeves running, gunning, and falling down stairs. With that in mind, here are five keys to the franchise’s success that could go easily overlooked as Hollywood attempts to find the next John Wick, or totally blows off the assignment due to a lack of imagination. Please take these thoughts free of charge, studio bigwigs.

1. A future franchise can start small

Keanu Reeves, as John Wick in John Wick (2014), aims a gun with his left hand while his right hand is tied up with a body on the floor
John Wick (2014)
Photo: David Lee/Lionsgate

John Wick: Chapter 4’s three-hour run time and enormous set-pieces could fool misguided studio executives into thinking that big scope is the only avenue to big reward. Clearly, this theoretical studio executive did not see Reeves in 47 Ronin.

Reeves and Stahelski are sitting on top of the world today because the industry had absolutely no respect for their vision. John Wick started off as a spec script from Derek Kolstad, who spent nearly 20 years trying to get any project off the ground, let alone an R-rated assassin movie. Producer Basil Iwanyk saw potential in Kolstad’s proto-John Wick screenplay — which had the name Scorn at the time — and enticed the writer to steer clear of studios that would likely bury it in a pile of other spec acquisitions. Iwanyk, by contrast, actually wanted to make the movie.

When Stahelski and Leitch came on board, going indie in the $20 million to $30 million budget range was the only way to make it happen, as no one in the traditional studio system had faith before production. Turns out, no one had faith in the movie after it was in the can, either. As the story goes, John Wick’s close-quarters action and empty-warehouse set-pieces were nearly destined for the direct-to-video bin before Lionsgate swooped in as a distributor and put it in front of the audience at the annual Austin-based Fantastic Fest, where it blew the roof off the place.

The saga is easily overlooked history: John Wick did not start as a globe-trotting man-on-the-run story! One of the film’s key action moments is Reeves fighting Adrianne Palicki in his hotel room! It’s a li’l fight movie! And Kolstad is fully in Star Wars 1977 mode, as the script brushes against a greater mythology without overinvesting in it. As we now know, there was plenty left on the table in terms of a world to explore.

Lionsgate understands this model; the Twilight and Hunger Games series followed similar arcs, going from mid-budget thrillers to holiday-season-worthy tentpoles. This is less of a thing at other studios. I think a lot about (and weep over) The Dark Tower. The Stephen King book series started as a down-to-earth gnarly Western with a few supernatural elements, then grew into a Lord of the Rings-sized epic. But when we finally got a movie adaptation, it was the biggest, most bloated version imaginable. Why? For the same reason Justice League was a mess: the notion that fast-forwarding to the mega-blockbuster payoff of a franchise is easier than Doing The Work. The John Wick movies suggest that studios can make bank in the long run, as long as they’re patient.

2. Level up more stunt- and fight-focused directors

Joe Taslim stands in front of a “Safety starts with me” sign toting a shotgun facing several men on fire in The Night Comes for Us.
The Night Comes for Us
Photo: Eriekn Juragan/Netflix

With all due respect to Underworld and Total Recall remake director Len Wiseman, why is Len Wiseman directing the John Wick spinoff Ballerina?

As Stahelski has said over and over throughout his years of press for the John Wick movies, a key element to the franchise is the way he approaches action and story as a single thread. There is no gear-shifting — in John Wick: Chapter 4, the plot moves forward with every thrown punch or fired bullet. Not every director works that way, but stunt people and action-forward directors do. So why haven’t more of them graduated to the studio big leagues? Who better to make the next wave of John Wick-esque movies?

There have been stabs at action movies in the key of John Wick, but the directors typically come from other genre arenas. Netflix’s Kate, which coupled Mary Elizabeth Winstead with the action style of 87North Productions — a company co-founded by David Leitch — was directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a career visual effects supervisor from films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. His previous credit was The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Nobody, which saw Leitch and Derek Kolstad team up with Bob Odenkirk to imagine a Regular Guy doing some skull-cracking, was directed by Ilya Naishuller, a music video guy who previously worked with Wanted’s Timur Bekmambetov. Both of these guys are competent, but not known for their action — as opposed to a handful of prominent directors currently working in the direct-to-video/streaming sector.

Just like Stahelski leveled up to John Wick and eventually had a full studio-backed canvas to paint on in Chapter 2 and beyond, maybe it’s time for Timo Tjahjanto (The Night Comes for Us), Jesse V. Johnson (Avengement), J.J. Perry (Day Shift), M.J. Bassett (Rogue), Veronica Ngo (Furies), or, heck, even Dolph Lundgren (Castle Falls) to get their bigger due. There are chances of this already happening: Tjahjanto is poised to make a splash with a Train to Busan remake, and Johnson’s latest, One Ranger, an action spy Western (???) starring Thomas Jane, could maybe hit theaters in 2023 if Lionsgate rolls the dice. I’m just saying, the masses would love a Scott Adkins/Isaac Florentine joint if they knew one existed.

The point is: The talent is out there. Stahelski brought his A-game. Ric Roman Waugh cashed in his stunt cred for similar success with Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen. 87North grad Sam Hargrave did the thing for Netflix with Extraction. There’s no real reason a commercial director needs to make a Mortal Kombat movie when there are Action People right in front of us.

3. Mint movie stars with skills

Keanu Reeves is not the hot new thing in Hollywood — he’s been working steadily since the mid-’80s, evolving from an indie darling to “the Matrix guy.” No one’s likely to ever replace or replicate him.

Weirdly, “time-honored movie star getting back in the saddle” is a theme of the 2023 blockbuster slate. Later this year, we’ll see Nic Cage in Renfield, Vin Diesel in Fast X, Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Michael Keaton in The Flash, and Optimus Prime in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Old guys! So many old guys.

Where’s the fresh blood? Who is putting in the time to become an absorbing thespian and professional martial artist? And is Hollywood even looking for them? While 87North has gone the extra length to train a new generation of stunt people, studios need to look beyond the Hot People actor pool to find physical performers who can do work that’s impressive enough to stand out. Hollywood understood this once upon a time: Gene Kelly brought dance to the screen and figured out the movie-star thing as he went. Who else could be a star if they were put on the massive stage of a tentpole movie? Who else will stand out if studios lean on natural ability and dedicated training, instead of gravity-defying VFX? Audiences show up for practical fights and impressive stunts: See Everything Everywhere All at Once, a Best Picture winner completely built off Michelle Yeoh’s ability to slap.

4. Movies can build worlds, too

three tattooed women update a chalkboard with bounties at the assassin’s guild or whatever in John Wick: Chapter 2 Image: Lionsgate

It’s obvious, but it bears repeating: Movies don’t require books, comic books, TV shows, or toy lines as a foundation. They do need a solid base of reality.

There is a past, present, and future swirling around John Wick when we meet him in his first movie, but it makes almost no sense — thank god. Kolstad explains a little, leaves lots to the imagination, and focuses on the visceral pleasures of the journey at hand. That’s partially because he started small (see No. 1 above), but it’s also about having faith that the audience isn’t dumb and doesn’t really need every tiny thing explained. Reactions are all over the map on how John Wick: Chapter 4 treats the greater mythology of the Continental, the High Table, and the ritualistic duel that drives the film’s main plot — some praise the careful bricklaying, while others complain that it’s become too dense. Both criticisms seem like a win for a movie based on nothing.

5. Lights + camera = action!

Donnie Yen looks dope as fuck, wearing a black suit with a skinny, short tie and sunglasses, and firing a gun in John Wick: Chapter 4. Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate

As the Marvel machine combats bad PR over abused VFX pipelines and homogenous filmmaking, the John Wick movies are over in their corner triumphing off a look and feel that stems from Stahelski’s vision. The takeaway from his mountains of press is that he’s been left alone to devise the coolest action imaginable, and works with writers to organically seed it into each ratcheting-up of the story. He told Polygon that when he was coming up with action ideas for Chapter 4, he kinda just went online and Googled for cool inspiration. Movies!

The pre-visualized, pre-packaged spectacle movies of yore have sucked in and spit out directors with vision. There seems to be a lack of faith that a filmmaker could come in and make a movie of a certain scale that would hit all four demographic quadrants. Yet Stahelski is out there making the screen pop with neon, shadows, and slick camera movements, thanks in large part to his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, who happens to be Guillermo del Toro’s go-to guy as well. The first John Wick established the skeleton for how these movies would play out, but in the sequels, Laustsen was given room to cement John Wick’s palette, and now it’s part of the sell.

John Wick movies promise that viewers will be able to see the action clearly, and that it’ll be stitched together with percussive editing. Wick will pound away at goons as Tyler Bates’ electronic score pounds away at viewers. The action can swing from the bright whites of New York City’s Oculus to the gold-streaked blacks of Rome’s underbelly, but the tone will be consistently operatic. The John Wick team invented a cinematic language, one that isn’t about shooting the longest continuous takes just because.

As directors who have worked through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s often bemoan, the missing element in so many of today’s movies is time. Time to light, time to block, time to finesse the performances. Time, divorced from release dates set years in advance. Time for creatives to rediscover the movie in postproduction. Maybe the John Wick sequels have been shot under the gun for not enough money, but they don’t look like it, in that they don’t look like anything else playing in theaters. Stahelski and Reeves seem to be getting what they want. Filmmakers rarely do these days, apart from a privileged few who’ve ascended to producer status as well. (Jordan Peele and Steven Spielberg come to mind.) But we can imagine a world where there are more John Wick-like breakouts resonating with audiences because filmmakers are being allowed to make the movies they want to see, rather than the movies that studio analysts (or, as time goes on, AI algorithms) think everyone in the world wants to see.

I won’t hold my breath, but hey, you never know!