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In one of the best action franchises ever, only the first John Wick movie truly achieves greatness

When it comes to action movie worldbuilding, tell me less, please

John Wick
Image credit: Summit Entertainment

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We all love the John Wick series. They’re some of the best action films of the past decade and have consistently given us memorable fights and gorgeous set pieces to discuss. However, as much as I love watching the stakes get raised during each film, I also can’t get over how each subsequent John Wick movie has become less exciting, less compelling, and less unique than the last. Not because they don’t deliver on the action but because they reveal too much about the underground world of assassins at the heart of John Wick.

It is an argument I’ve made before when discussing Stranger Things – when it comes to worldbuilding, sometimes less is more. Knowing the intricacies of The Continental Hotel didn’t add to my enjoyment of the movies just like learning about John’s past as the Baba Yaga didn’t make him a more compelling character. In fact, it was the opposite for me. As the scale of the movies grew and we learned about the international intrigue of the High Table and everyone involved, I was longing for a simpler time when it was just about a man going on a city-wide rampage over a dog.

This is why the first John Wick movie is the only one that really achieves greatness for me. It tells you precisely what you need to know and nothing else, allowing the myth of John Wick to grow simply by watching people’s reactions to him. Do we need to know about the coins John digs up in his basement? Or how he earned his freedom from the High Table? Or every rule and intricacy around the neutral ground of The Continental? These are details that get in the way of what this series is about – a man whose name alone is enough to put the fear of God into the hardest of criminals.

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Watch this scene where Viggo calls Aurelio from John Wick. There are less than 30 words in this phone call, none of them about John Wick’s past exploits, yet it tells us everything we need to know about them. Viggo has been established as a scary figure, calling Aurelio with the likely intent of threatening him for the disrespect shown to his son. The mention of John Wick changes his mind and has him, by the look shown on Michael Nyqvist’s face, contemplating his own mortality with a newfound sense of necessity. That is the effect of a man whose capacity to murder is the stuff of legends and it is all we need to understand the profound mistake Viggo's son has made.

By the end of the first movie, we still know very little about the world of John Wick. We know there are rules and that there are consequences for breaking them, but we don’t know the elaborate ceremonies and rituals involved because that isn’t important. There is a sense that the writers have imagined a whole universe in this movie and are only showing us the very tip of it and, dammit, that is so much more compelling than spelling it all out for us. Mystery, when used well, is so much more valuable a storytelling device than exposition.

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