clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Scott Adkins flashes a toothy grin while holding an ace of spades up in John Wick 4. Image: Lionsgate

Filed under:

John Wick movies are full of action legends — here’s where to watch them next

Let Mr. Wick take you on a tour of action movie history

“You get to work with two martial arts legends in this movie, Donnie [Yen] and Hiroyuki [Sanada],” Looper interviewer Don Kaye prompts during the recent press tour for John Wick: Chapter 4, the popular franchise’s next much-anticipated bullet-odyssey.

With genuine gusto, Keanu Reeves interjects: “Three — and Scott Adkins.”

For many a genre fan, seeing the championed action star Adkins — often headlining direct-to-video spectaculars packed with unforgettably dynamic fights — placed in the pantheon of martial arts legends by one of the genre’s biggest names was a moment of validation and celebration long coming. These past few months have been awash in moments like that, whether courtesy of Wick fever, seeing Michelle Yeoh win a Best Actress Oscar after a storied career that began with death-defying stunts in Hong Kong action classics, or seeing brothers Andy and Brian Le onstage during their SAG Awards win for Best Ensemble after their years of dazzling YouTube action shorts led them to choreograph the fights of (and act in) Everything Everywhere All at Once. Action visionaries new and old, being recognized and celebrated.

In its evolution from humble nearly-DTV revenge thriller to $100 million globetrotting epic, the John Wick films have become the embodiment of that same ethos. The very nature of landing Reeves as the lead right on the cusp of a career decline in the wake of 47 Ronin, and marrying Reeves’ unique stoicism with a role tailor-made for those strengths, reflects the uplifting respect for action that the franchise fosters. In a lesser film, casting veteran martial artist/actor/stuntman Daniel Bernhardt would result in a fleeting henchman appearance. Yet not only does the first John Wick give fans a Matrix Reloaded rematch between Neo and Agent Johnson, it elevates Bernhardt to an antagonistic equal: the only enemy skilled and resourceful enough to kick Wick’s ass thrice through the film.

Director Chad Stahelski would take his series’ showcase of talent to further heights with each sequel. In his role as Cassian in John Wick: Chapter 2, Common plays a character who isn’t just a dogged thorn in our hero’s side, but one treated as a foil just as deadly, sharp, and loyal as Wick himself. However, armed with an even grander budget and scope, the third entry is when the John Wick franchise truly turns its hitman gun-fu actioner into a genre celebration. Then, a homage to Enter the Dragon; now, a homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to South Korean film The Villainess, to Game of Death, but more impressively filling the cast with beloved and veteran legends to give mainstream audiences a refined taste of what longtime fans have loved about these actors for years.

Since his heights in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Mark Dacascos has likely become better known as the host of Iron Chef America than as a martial arts action star. But Stahelski’s direction treats the man like genre royalty, creating in ninja-for-hire Zero a vessel for Dacascos’ electric charm and cool coiled poise. Having The Raid’s Indonesian showstoppers Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman at his side as shinobi badasses, pitting the two against Reeves as the penultimate finale showdown, couldn’t be more of a flex, showing how Hollywood should be treating the action icons of today. Even Tiger Chen, star of Keanu’s own Man of Tai Chi, gets to trade throwing knives with Wick and receive the opening’s literally eye-popping coup de grace. For die-hards, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a who’s who of new and old favorites given a sleek, stylish sandbox to perform in. For the average uninitiated viewer, it’s a high-level exhibition of (and a sleekly curated introduction to) genre legends.

John Wick: Chapter 4 continues that trend with even bigger names and an even more lavish stage to let them shine. The incomparable Donnie Yen, the masterful Hiroyuki Sanada, the human dynamo Scott Adkins, the gravity-defying Chilean action stalwart Marko Zaror: Not since 2019’s Triple Threat (Uwais! Jaa! Chen! Adkins! Michael Jai White! JeeJa Yanin!) has such a wealth of martial arts prowess been assembled. Their lengthy careers are rife with lesser-known gems and superb showcases of their talents (especially Zaror, an under-the-radar star among under-the radar stars). This list is a celebration of that genre treasure trove and of the iconic names the John Wick series brought to prominence once more, with two movie recommendations to watch for each Wick guest star.

Daniel Bernhardt (John Wick)

Daniel Bernhardt wears a tactical black vest while holding an assault rifle and standing next to a four-eyed alien in Skylines. Image: Vertical Entertainment

Skylines (2020)

When alien invasion film Skyline released in 2010 to a, let’s say… less-than-enamored critical reception, no one involved would’ve imagined its sequel, Beyond Skyline, would escalate to Iko Uwais stabbing aliens as an extraterrestrial kaiju looms. Or that its multi-planet space-superpowered threequel, Skylines, would feature the dependable Daniel Bernhardt in one of his meatiest roles. As Col. Owens, he exudes a pragmatic menace that adds palpable tension to a film where Lindsey Morgan shoots space lasers from her wrists and banters with her alien-body-swapped brother. That he also faces off with Reel Deal stunt team alum Cha-Lee Yoon (seen most recently in Violent Night) in a grueling melee is practically just a bonus.

Skylines is available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Hell Hath No Fury (2021)

For many, the acclaimed Barry episode “ronny/lily” is their first and last introduction to Daniel Bernhardt the actor, as opposed to Daniel Bernhardt the henchman and stunt double. However, Jesse V. Johnson’s World War II pressure-cooker Hell Hath No Fury further capitalizes on the actor’s dramatic strengths. Bernhardt’s Von Bruckner never fights in this Fuller/Peckinpah-style thriller of stolen Jewish gold and Nazi-besieged cemetery, instead hinging entirely on Bernhardt’s poise and charisma warped into silver-tongued coveting sociopathy. Seeing the man often relegated to henchmen command the screen as the lead antagonist is a reward all its own.

Hell Hath No Fury is streaming on Hulu, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Mark Dacascos (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum)

Kadeem Hardison and Mark Dacascos as Toby Wong and Malik Brody in Drive (1997), Image: Simitar Entertainment

Drive (1997)

Released the year before Rush Hour, it’s not unlikely to find fans who wish this buddy action comedy between escaped super-soldier Dacascos and wrong-place-wrong-time hostage Kadeem Hardison was the film that birthed a franchise. Arguably the best Hong Kong-style martial arts movie Hong Kong never made, its zanily inventive and blindingly fast choreography is matched entertainment-wise by the bubbly, playful chemistry between the men (only amplified by the arrival of Brittany Murphy). The true breadth of Mark Dacascos is witnessing him battle electric-stun bad guys with rubber boots over his hands, then spontaneously break out into song and dance in the midst of a rocket-themed restaurant.

Drive is streaming on Tubi, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Blade of the 47 Ronin (2022)

Among movies never expected to exist, a 9-year-late sequel to the critically maligned 47 Ronin might be the ultimate contender — and as a cyberpunk-ish future-set direct-to-video “sequel” no less, pitting modern samurai clans against mystical evil ninjas over magician sword McGuffins. But director Ron Yuan (seen most recently in the delightful The Paper Tigers) delivers solidly designed sword fights every 10 minutes or so, a plethora of faceless ninjas, and a cast including Mike Moh and Dan Southworth. Mark Dacascos imbuing his presence and game-for-anything charm in the heroes’ samurai mentor Lord Shinshiro ends up as the film’s greatest strength. Present for a sizable chunk of the narrative, he sells every line and dramatic beat with admirable conviction; considering Shinshiro is sarcastically called a “John Wick fanboy” at one point, it’s safe to assume the cast and crew knows exactly who their audience is, in the best way possible.

Blade of the 47 Ronin is streaming on Netflix, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Yayan Ruhian (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum)

Yayan Ruhian fights Hairul Azreen in Wira. Hairul has two knives, while Yayan attempts to prevent himself from being stabbed. Image: Netflix

Merantau (2009)

Inspired by Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak both in structure and intent, Merantau united Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais, and the martial art silat before the team would go to melt faces with The Raid. The simple and effective story of a young village’s coming-of-age journey to the big city takes a turn into battling local traffickers, leading to a fateful confrontation between Uwais’ Yuda and Yayan Ruhian’s Eric. A deleted scene fleshed out their dynamic more, but Ruhian’s intensity cements him as a foil regardless. The duo’s exhausting and claustrophobic elevator fight remains one of the most exhilarating sequences in either actor’s filmography.

Merantau is streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Wira (2019)

Outside of Timo Tjahjanto’s films, plus Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim in the occasional role not shredded by editing, it seemed The Raid’s other stars are destined to either minor cameos or behind-the-camera handling of action. This makes Adrian Teh’s Wira all the more superb an exhibit in making the most of casting Yayan Ruhian. Acting as both the film’s fight choreographer and its villain’s right hand, Ruhian’s taut scowling energy as Ifrit looms over the film’s returning-badass-cleans-up-the-neighborhood conflict until paying off in a knock-down, drag-out 2v1 fight with leads Hairul Azreen and Fify Azmi. In a film not lacking in solid action, the best is saved for last, in satisfying fashion. Now if only more movies followed Wira’s lead in maximizing Ruhian.

Wira is streaming on Netflix.

Marko Zaror (John Wick: Chapter 4)

Marko Zaror, shirtless, stretches out his arms as we see his back filled with tattoos, in Redeemer. Image: XYZ Films

Mandrill (2009)

It’s in Marko Zaror’s collaborations with director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza where the Chilean star’s talents get to fully shine. The creator and actor have worked together four times, with their fifth film, The Fist of the Condor, arriving in April, but Mandrill’s spy send-up is where Zaror gets to play with every facet of his abilities: self-deprecating, winking humor akin to his earlier superhero action-comedy Mirageman, James Bond-esque romantic and suave charm, and, of course, astoundingly acrobatic kicks. As a parody and homage to 007-esque tropes, Zaror manages to embody special agent sleekness and absurd goofiness at once; no other role since has showcased the actor so fully.

Mandrill is available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Redeemer (2014)

A previous Zaror-Espinoza collab, Redeemer’s cartel vigilante actioner couches its frequent fights in a comic book-esque feud between the titular legendary hitman and his nemesis, The Scorpion. Zaror weaponizes his towering frame into a wall of stoic turmoil and religious penance, only erupting during his gory melee massacre of the underworld. Close-quarters gunplay and the fear evoked by the Redeemer’s notoriety brings John Wick to mind at times, but what truly stands out is Zaror’s savage, pulverizing combat, including performing the best ground grappling-integrated combat this side of Flash Point’s iconic Donnie Yen-versus-Collin Chou finale.

Redeemer is available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick: Chapter 4)

A young Hiroyuki Sanada wears a leather jacket and holds a revolver against a dark red background in Royal Warriors. Image: Atlas International Film

Shogun’s Ninja (1980)

Having faced Sub-Zero, Wolverine, and Sadako throughout his long filmography, legendary Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada is no stranger to genre films or odd confrontations. However, his earlier career as a young protege to Sonny Chiba is rife with action thrills. Shogun’s Ninja was Sanada’s first lead role, in lanky acrobatic form as an avenging heir to a destroyed clan. With choreography and performers from Chiba’s Japan Action Club stunt team, this madcap whirlwind of (occasionally exploding) ninjas, samurai, exploitation sleaze, and surreal genre shifts doesn’t lack for acrobatic prowess or bloody sword fights. Imbued with chaotic energy by director Norifumi Suzuki — the writer of Sister Street Fighter and its absolutely bonkers sequel, Hanging by a ThreadShogun’s Ninja delights with spider shinobi attacks and jazzy fireside dance numbers in equal measure. Sanada and Chiba would reunite several times in the following decade; their most gloriously gonzo collaboration in Suzuki’s Roaring Fire, in which Sanada fights back-to-back with Chiba’s ventriloquist/magician/interpol agent and performs his own white-knuckle stunts three years before Jackie Chan’s Police Story, remains sadly unavailable in the U.S.

Shogun’s Ninja is streaming on Tubi.

Royal Warriors (1986)

Michelle Yeoh, Michael Wong, and a vengeful Hiroyuki Sanada find themselves targeted by criminal blood brothers forged in the jungles of Vietnam in a movie whose every action sequence is such an eruption of mayhem and daring stunt work that most other films would love to have any of its set pieces as a finale. That about sums up Royal Warriors, technically a retroactive follow-up to Corey Yuen’s classic Yes, Madam!, but even more impressive as director David Chung’s exhilarating encapsulation of golden age Hong Kong action. Its 96 minutes propulsively flaunt every flavor of the era’s spectacle. An airplane hijacking foiled by its lead trio’s skills, weaponizing explosive decompression and serving carts against their foes? A nightclub gunfight to rival The Terminator’s Tech Noir havoc? A chassis-rattling wreck-galore car chase that ends with Sanada literally buried by an excavator? Michelle Yeoh versus a flailing chainsaw? This action feast of a film offers all that and more, while hinging on Yeoh’s dazzling presence and Sanada’s performance of revenge-consumed fury; the Japanese star brings a ferocious iciness to Royal Warriors’ more conventional tonal blend of action, romance, comedy, and even more action.

Royal Warriors is streaming on the Criterion Channel till the end of March.

Scott Adkins (John Wick: Chapter 4)

Scott Adkins as Cain Burgess in Avengement Image: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Avengement (2019)

The sight in John Wick: Chapter 4 trailers of Adkins in fat suit and mad grin as Killa — an homage to Sammo Hung’s purple-suited crime boss in 2005’s SPL — offered an even more exciting proposition than merely the beloved martial arts star getting to shine in a mainstream action movie. That choice promised Stahelski and co. would be embracing Adkins’ gonzo character-actor side too, the same facet that turned Avengement into one of his most memorable performances. Often cast as the henchman opposite Hollywood heroes (remember his fleeting appearance getting flattened by Jason Bourne?), Adkins’ leathery feral turn in Jesse V. Johnson’s revenge brawler transformed the actor even beyond the likes of his fan-favorite Boyka role. Doled out in a pacey juggle of prison survival flashbacks and gangster pub holdup, Avengement’s nonlinear structure gives its bone-snapping brawls a compelling narrative hook. Choreographer Dan Styles eschews Adkins’ familiar kicks for an animalistic bruiser style to match the scarred metal-grill countenance.

Avengement is streaming on Netflix, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday (2022)

If Avengement is currently the ultimate display of Adkins disappearing into a character, then Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday delights as the film with Scott Adkins at his most fully formed, most comfortably charismatic, and most pushed-to-his-limits-physically in years. Following the vengeful fallout of the first film, what starts as a Maltese hangout of wetwork gigs and old friends becomes an assassin onslaught at the half-hour mark. Always ready with saucy banter and sassy retorts, Adkins’ nonstop series of oddball hitman duels culminates in an immensely kinetic showdown with Jackie Chan Stunt Team alum Andy Long, also the film’s choreographer. After his more grounded action seen in the likes of One Shot, Castle Falls, or Legacy of Lies, Hitman’s Holiday is Scott Adkins unleashed.

Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday is streaming on Hulu, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Donnie Yen (John Wick: Chapter 4)

Donnie Yen, wearing a sleeveless top, holds his sword against another man’s sword as the two of them stare intensely at each other in Tiger Cage II. Image: D & B Films Co.

Tiger Cage II (1990)

After 12 kung-fu movies and a decade of revolutionary choreography, director Yuen Woo-Ping made his post-Police Story modern-day crime barnburner Tiger Cage. Donnie Yen was merely a secondary character in that film (he still gets a blistering fight with Michael Woods, though), unlike its crime-slapstick sequel-in-name-only two years later. From support to leading man, this is a young Donnie Yen at his most swift and showoff-spirited, swept up in a city-wise cacophony of foot chases, sewer brawls, squibs galore, silent-comedy-esque fight gags, and room-obliterating stunts. All in all, Tiger Cage II is a set piece roller coaster, from fistfights atop double-decker buses to sparking sword warehouse duels, that acts as a 95-minute summation of why Hong Kong action is unforgettable.

Tiger Cage II is available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

Special ID (2013)

Released amid his mid-2010s kung-fu streak of Dragon and The Monkey King, Special ID is Donnie Yen taking a brief detour to his gritty crime-action era, albeit with a film slightly lighter in tone compared to SPL or Flash Point. Director Clarence Fok finesses a boilerplate Hong Kong cop popcorn flick into a sturdy throwback of gangsters, detectives, and action rom-com. A scuffier-than-usual Yen pounds goons into oblivion across a plethora of bloody-knuckle bodyspam beatdowns, but it’s actually co-star Jing Tian who you’ll truly remember as a revelation, akin to peak Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Khan. She’s even the focus of Special ID’s most spectacular set piece: a breakneck car pursuit and inside-said-car brawl coordinated by stunt legend Bruce Law (of The Raid 2’s car chase fame).

Special ID is streaming on Hi-Yah and Tubi, and available to rent or purchase on VOD platforms.

What to Watch

The 7 best movies new to streaming on Netflix, Max, Prime Video, and Hulu (June 2023)

What to Watch

The best movies on Netflix right now

What to Watch

The best movies to start the summer off right

View all stories in What to Watch

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon