In the wake of John Wick: Chapter 4, we look at whether Keanu’s iconic franchise has now become the best action series of all time…
What is the best action franchise? Which series of three or more films have the most consistent levels of quality? It’s pretty hard to look beyond John Wick, which has now had a four-film run of ever-increasing stakes and scale.
In addition, the franchise has remained consistent as far as quality. Other franchises have arguably hit higher highs, but there’s barely a long-standing action franchise going that doesn’t have a stinker or two in its ranks.
Let’s look at a few runners and riders who might contend with John Wick…
Die Hard – A Good Day to Die Hard
The original Die Hard film is a masterpiece. It’s arguably the best action film ever made and has become quintessential Christmas viewing too. Like many films that prove popular and successful, it spawned sequels.
Firstly, there was Die Hard 2: Die Harder which effectively repeated the same film with some more elaborate set pieces but far less character depth. Die Hard With A Vengeance saw John McTiernan return to the franchise and make another stellar action film. Sure, not a patch on the original, but Vengeance if ranked beside the Wick films would sit somewhere in the middle of the quality scale. Live Free or Die Hard is 3/4 of a very decent movie, let down by a farcical finale, but the franchise was dropped from the Nakatomi Plaza of quality control by its final, godawful entry, A Good Day to Die Hard. Bruce Willis couldn’t disguise his apathy for returning to his iconic role with such sub-par material put before him.
John Wick definitely takes the Die Hard franchise out with a flaming shotgun blast.
Mad Max – Mad Max: Fury Road
Right, I’m gonna say this right from the off, but Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is decent. No, hear me out. Maybe I’m an apologist, but the strange fusion of atypical Maxian elements with a lost boys/lord of the flies gaggle of kids that Max falls in with, makes for a compelling enough tale and the visual splendour and action are undeniably exquisite.
Now, Thunderdome doesn’t match any of the Wick movies. In truth, though the original film is full of Ozploitaition gold and raw visceral, caution-to-the-wind stunts and action, it doesn’t pull to par with anything in the Wick franchise either. That leaves a lot of leg work for the classic Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and recent action spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road to do in order to usurp John Wick.
If we’re talking vehicular carnage alone, George Miller’s quad would certainly oust everyone but this is a wide open gamut of action tropes we’re judging on. In terms of an overall best, both John Wick 4 and Fury Road could legitimately claim to be the best action film of the 21st century, along with 2-3 other contenders. This is a John Wick dog launch to the scrote to claim victory.
Mission: Impossible – Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Tom Cruise’s long-running franchise is arguably the closest and most consistent contender. If John Wick never slips below a B+ in the grades, then the M:I franchise does have at least four films which hit that mark too. The problem is, it’s also a six film franchise and as the film count increases, so too does the likelihood of turkeys gobbling within your midst.
In the case of the Mission franchise, the weak spots remain the second and third entries. The second film may have effectively the same plot as all the rest, with everything revolving around the retrieval of some kind of MacGuffin/person against the clock but it carries that out in the most perfunctory way of all of them. In saying that, it’s also got masses of iconic Tom Cruise moments and stunts. It’s also John Woo pastiching himself mercilessly to the point of near farce and Hans Zimmer is even less subtle. But dagnabit if this ain’t a stunningly constructed action film with dazzling set pieces. More wearisome is the somewhat forgettable third film that, if not for a franchise-best villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman, would fully evaporate into the ether, never to be recalled again.
As for the great, the first film is still superb and Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation and especially Fallout are immense. Keanu Reeves indefatigable work rate is only second to that of Tom Cruise, whose epic stunt work continues to be a major pull and one area where Mission: Impossible usurps Wick, and probably everything else is in how much practical work is done in-camera.
The Terminator – Terminator Dark Fate
The iconic Terminator franchise began with a one-two-punch combination of classics. Even just considering the first two, here’s where it gets debatable. None of the Wick films touches the first two. Not by a long shot, but the first Terminator is just as much a horror film as it is action and it belongs in the realm of nightmare-driven cinema. As far as action spectacle goes, John Wick 4 is one of only a select few 21st-century films that are within sniffing distance of a T800’s engine oil when compared with T2.
However, a reason why the Terminator franchise derails way off the point of competing with Wick is the fact that from Rise of the Machines, through to Terminator: Dark Fate, the films have been mediocre and worse still is the lows that Terminator Genisys manages to achieve. Terminators might be relentless but they’re no match for Baba Yaga.
James Bond is a long-running franchise, but if we’re being honest the high-low, hit-miss nature of the beast means at best, it levels out as a B grade. Highlights include From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, GoldenEye and Casino Royale. The latter of which is the one post-millennium Bond that truly competes as a full-blown action spectacle with the likes of Fury Road and Wick 4.
Daniel Craig’s era has been erratic, sometimes personified as distinctly lacking in verve and fun. The franchise’s low points have at least often been amusing in spite of themselves, such as Moonraker, but nothing can make Die Another Day watchable.
Bond gets rumbled with a head-scissor takedown and a pencil through the eye and into the brain. Hopefully replaced with the demographic most likely to annoy middle-aged British men because let’s face it, nothing is funnier than an enraged middle Englander who thinks Bond might have breasts one day.
The Fast franchise hit a nice peak when Dwayne Johnson joined the crew, but it lost all heart when Paul Walker died. It’s an odd franchise because its key headliner, Vin Diesel has often felt strangely redundant and has never been as good as he was in the first film.
Since the seventh film, what was already silly became increasingly sillier, without the kind of world-building in place and sincerity that exists with the very distinct high-table theatrics of Wick. An overabundance of CGI also hasn’t helped, particularly when Tom Cruise’s franchise is built on jaw-dropping practical stunts. Even at the Fast franchise’s furious best, it’s probably only ever gone to par with the first Wick.
The John Wick Franchise Wins… Here’s Why
There’s a certain pattern film to film with John Wick. It’s progressive escalation. Within these films, that line that surges up from start to finish is also, for the most part, matched by the progression from the first film to the most recent.
The original Wick film was more intimate in scale. It hinted at the broader world of the high table and some of the customs, beginning that world-building very effectively. It’s a simple revenge tale and opine on loss, with Keanu Reeves bringing a big chunk of vulnerability behind his mythically unstoppable hitman’s stoicism. The film has the most character depth of the series.
The second and third films found a great way to continue his story, whilst retaining Wick’s thoughtful yet ruthless demeanour. Chad Stahelski as director continually upped the ante and invited in more and more stellar supporting actors and fight-trained foes to battle the indefatigable Keanu Reeves. Thus we had Common battling Reeves in a great brawl in Wick 2, then Mark Dacascos and a couple of The Raid alumni throwing down with the main man in the third. We’ve had reams of character actors filling roles and chewing scenery in the histrionic, near-pantomime world of John Wick. They’re the perfect overplayed antithesis to the stoic Wick.
The fourth film is long but absolutely relentless. If the middle two substituted some emotional payoff for sheer spectacle, then Stahelski ensured the fourth film would reinstate the melancholia and sincerity that existed in the first, as well as ensuring the characters’ goals were as clearly defined as possible again.
One particularly standout element of Chad Stahelski’s franchise is the glorious visuals, which particularly from the second film onward have looked as dazzling as you could conceive an action film might. The third and fourth films delve into even more varied locations and backdrops. Wick operates in a world full of neon, atmospheric, immersive night clubs (with rain machines, laser shows etc etc). He’s regularly in rooms full of mirrors and/or glass and the production design of the film frequently smashes together gothic, brutalist, ancient, grungy, modern and post-modern aesthetics together as the playgrounds for gun-fu, sword fights, car duels, dog fights and more. I’ll just say it, no action franchise looks as consistently gorgeous as Wick. The genre has rarely felt the need to unless blending with sci-fi or fantasy.
And of course, Stahelski’s modus operandi has always been action and on this, Wick has never failed. The mixed martial arts blend has always looked spectacular as he combines so many engaging striking and kicking techniques with judo throws, and momentum moves (a little aikido occasionally). In the midst of all of this is Reeves, the internet’s Diety. Is anyone more likeable? Thus, even playing a cold-blooded killer, we still root for Wick. It goes beyond him just beyond a cool dude though, he’s also dedicated to his craft and Reeves’ fiercely determined approach to training for the film in weapons, fighting, driving and the choreography has been hugely impressive and he’s inspired his co-stars in kind, not least the wonderful Halle Berry who was immense in the third film.
Everything and everyone raises their level to match Keanu. Best of all, no one ever gets wasted and utilising Donnie Yen well for the first time in a Western film gets the highest praise indeed.
Is John Wick the greatest action franchise? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth, and if you’d like to support our efforts to make a feature film, then please check out the crowdfunding campaign for The Baby in the Basket, a 1940s-set Gothic horror due to go into production this year. We’ve got a bunch of perks available, on-screen thanks, walk-on/voice roles, and producer credits and you can grab yourself a copy of the finished film (and help make it the very best it can be) for just £10!
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see.