By Laurence Lerman / New York City
John Wick: Chapter 4, the fourth installment in the action-thriller film series fronted by Keanu Reeves, was aiming for a franchise-high opening this past weekend, having opened in 3,855 theaters across North America on Friday. Industry analysts’ very healthy projections of between $65 million and $75 million were right on target as Reeves and company blew away the competition with $73.5 million at the domestic box office as of Sunday night, March 26.
The movie also debuted around the world over the weekend, coming in at No. 1 in each of the 71 countries where it opened and bringing the total global box office gross to a mighty $137.5 million.
The plot continues to thicken for Keanu Reeves’ legendary assassin in John Wick: Chapter 4, Wick having left the cozy confines of his retirement two movies ago to avenge the killing of his beloved puppy Daisy (!) by a group of no-goodnik Russian gangsters. After committing an unauthorized killing of a crime lord in the second film, Wick then survived a series of increasingly dangerous situations in the third movie after a legion of hitmen set out to claim a bounty on his head. Wick lived to tell the tale with some help –and occasional hindrance—from series regulars portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane and the late Lance Reddick.
Seriously banged up by the opening of the new film, Wick isn’t so badly bruised that he can’t work his way around the world to exact revenge on the members of the “High Table,” a council of 12 high-level international crime bosses.
Rambo may have smashed the Viet Cong, the Terminator taken on Sarah Connor and an apocalyptic future, and John McClain wiped out the baddies at Nakatomi Plaza, but none went to town on his enemies with such detached coolness—and focused fury—as the guy who hit the vengeance trail because of what they did to his dog!
Over the past decade, beginning with 2014’s John Wick, the series’ first entry, the darkly captivating world of Mr. Wick has grown from one small, independently produced action flick co-directed by pair of experienced stunt and action choreographers, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and starring a leading man whose other movies had been underperforming, to a sprawling, multi-movie global sensation.
There were several carefully devised production plans injected into the moviemaking, beginning with an extensive preproduction training regime for Reeves, who was familiar with the drill from his action-filled days starring in The Matrix and its sequels. And for the actual shooting, the filmmakers focused on carefully choreographed, long-take, full-body action sequences, mostly eschewing the usual rapid-cuts and close-ups found in most contemporary action fare.
Then there was the work of distributor Lionsgate, who cleverly marketed the film not as disposable action entertainment but rather a highly stylized, prestige event featuring good ol' Keanu, everyone’s favorite, affable leading man. (This is the guy who made the jump from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to The Matrix and John Wick. Enough said.).
John Wick was budgeted at $20 million and earned $86 million worldwide, making it a modest success, while also earning positive reviews for its cool style and action sequences. Reeves’ physicality and acting work were also praised, as was the film’s unique mythology of a shadowy, ritualistic international criminal underworld and its archaic code of honor.
Impressively, each film in the John Wick franchise has outgrossed its predecessor while expanding the Wick universe with other bold-name performers and even more ambitious action scenes. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), added Fishburne, Ruby Rose, Common and Peter Stormare to the mix and grossed $173.3 million around the world; while John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum featured Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Anjelica Huston, and a brutally efficient Halle Berry and rang up $328.3 million at the global box office.
John Wick: Chapter 4 arrives with a price tag of approximately $100 million, a chunk of it going to the film’s dozen-plus action set pieces, two of them memorably staged on Paris’s famed Rue Foyatier staircase and in the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. And with martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård and Natalia Tena added to the cast and a running time of nearly three hours, the film already looks like the action saga of the year.
With a fourth entry that’s so flamboyant and overstuffed, it’s easy to forget that the genesis of John Wick is actually nearly as entertaining as that of the franchise’s ever-growing mythologized universe and growing scale.
It dates back to the original John Wick spec script that screenwriter Derek Kolstad wrote in 2012. According to a 2014 interview with the film blog Flickering Myth, the up-and-coming Kolstad admitted he had never written a “revenge movie” but was inspired to give it a shot after he saw “a couple of disappointing entries.”
“Who doesn’t love a good one?,” he says he asked himself.
Kolstad’s original story centered around the character of John Wick, a long-retired hitman somewhere between his mid-60s and mid-70s who is forced back into his former life.
Upon reading Kostad’s script, originally entitled Scorn, producer Basil Iwanyk pondered the possibilities, reasoning that it would be fun to watch a 75-year-old kick back into action after being retired for 25 years. The first names of possible stars that came to Iwanyk’s mind for the project were Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford.
While talking to an agent at CAA about the potential of taking the script to the next level, the agent asked Iwanyk if he had any action movie stories he could possibly pitch to his client Keanu Reeves. Though Reeves wasn’t 75—not even in the ballpark—Iwanyk liked the idea of the likeable Reeves bringing his own interpretation to the role. More importantly, by the time Reeves read the script, he was so fascinated and drawn to the character that he began to inject his own ideas into the scenario and angle it towards his own impressions of what Wick could be.
Or, as Kolstad remembers it, Reeves “got his talons into the script and made it his own.”
And with the arrival of that first movie in the summer of 2014, both Reeves, director Stahelski and a formidable team of stunt performers and effects experts made what was soon to be one of Hollywood’s wildest and stylish franchises that didn’t revolve around superheroes or sci-fi-themed storylines.
Oh, and one of the Wick’s most defining elements was in place as an integral narrative plot point from the get-go: Kolstad’s original script included the death of Wick’s dog (and a reference to the earlier death of his wife, who had given the dog to him).
“I found myself asking the random question of myself: “what would you do if someone did something to Loki or Isis (my two mutts)?,” said Kostad. “And the answer? Terrible, terrible things…”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.