How 'John Wick' Became the Weirdest, Most Badass Action Franchise of the Decade

john wick
Yeah, he's 100 percent back. | Lionsgate
Yeah, he's 100 percent back. | Lionsgate

This story contains minor spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, but nothing that gives away essential plot points.

In describing my love of the John Wick franchise, I often go out of my way to explain that these movies aren't great just because of their super-cool fight sequences. I mean, they do have super-cool fight sequences, in which Keanu Reeves, seemingly limber as ever at 54, performs a balletic dance of violence, taking out legions of bad guys without blinking. But the reason the John Wicks have captured my heart is the lore. In the first installment, what starts out as a simple story about a widower taking revenge on the jerks who stole his car and killed his adorable puppy is also an introduction into a parallel universe version of New York where assassins have a safe-space hotel, a set of Byzantine codes, and their own monetary system comprised of ornate coins. As each progressive sequel arrives in theaters, audiences learn more about this deadly, wondrously ludicrous universe.

When the latest film, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, opens, John is excommunicado, having killed a member of the nefarious assassin leadership committee, the High Table, on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, which is a big no-no. There's a $14 million bounty on his head, and basically the entire city of New York wants a shot at him. Naturally, he takes many shots at them in return. In order to save his hide, John pulls out all the favors he's saved up. He brings a cross to a grand theater where he meets up with Anjelica Huston's The Director, a Ruska Roma woman who runs what appears to be a training school for assassins, which includes strict ballet and wrestling programs. From there, he gets passage to Morocco, where an old friend, Sofia (Halle Berry), awaits. She runs the Casablanca version of The Continental and also is indebted to John. Eventually he walks through the desert (in his suit, of course) to meet up with the head of the High Table, called The Elder, in the middle of nowhere. There's all a lot to keep track of, but according to writer Derek Kolstad, the Wick innovation is freeform. "Even during the second one there was talk about maybe building out a bible, but I think we all love the challenge of writing the story on the fly," he says.  

But just how did the saga of this one sad man get so amazingly weird? I spoke to director Chad Stahelski and Kolstad to get further insight on the coins, the High Table, and dog assassins.

The 'Wick' universe came from a desire to make a different kind of action movie.

John Wick wasn't always this complicated. According to Stahelski -- a veteran stuntman turned auteur thanks to this franchise -- the original script wasn't so high concept. There were no secret organizations or special financial systems, just plain old rich people doing bad things. "It was more of a covert world, not a hidden completely different mythos," the director says. But Stahelski didn't want to make "a regular action movie."

And then it dawned on him. He'll filter his own love of mythology and the writings of Joseph Campbell into this shoot-em-up extravaganza, imagining a New York City where regular people who are not part of this criminal subculture just don't matter. "Whenever he sees somebody not in the world, they'll be out of focus, and we don't care about background people," Stahelski says.

Welcome to the underworld. | Lionsgate

The world has mythological underpinnings.

Stahelski decided that Winston, Ian McShane's dapper hotel manager, would be Hades, which is why Lance Reddick's concierge is named Charon, after the figure that brings souls to the Underworld. Because John Wick isn't attached to any preexisting IP, it allows the creators to just play within the world, adding details from different cultural traditions as they see fit. Stahelski himself grew up in Asia and Europe, so he draws inspiration from his time living around the world, but a lot of ideas come from Stahelski and Reeves sitting around and riffing. "Keanu and I have these Scotch-filled logistical conversations [about] if John Wick was real, what would happen," he says.

The idea for John's North African sojourn, for example, came from brainstorming how they could incorporate global themes into an American action movie. "You have some aspects of the Asian culture like the ninjas -- we already had that, so we were like, let's do John Wick in the desert," Stahelski says. From there, an image arose: "We go visual. John Wick in a suit walking up a big sand dune. That was literally idea two of the whole movie. It was 'horse, ninjas, fucking sand.'"

Meeting with the actually sort of young Elder. | Lionsgate

The High Table is intentionally mysterious.

To find the head of The High Table, John is instructed to simply walk in the desert, and someone will come and get him. Or he'll just simply die out there in the blistering heat. (He keeps his jacket on.) "Chad loved the notion of doing something completely opposite of New York, and how John, who is used to the modern life, [could] be exposed to the elements and forced to place his life in someone else's trust, hence the walking out in the desert," Kolstad explains. And indeed the image of the bespoke suit-wearing John, a little worse for wear, hiking in the sand is indelible. After he collapses, he's picked up and delivered to The Elder, played by the relatively young-looking Saïd Taghmaoui.

Stahelski wanted to flip the script on something like SPECTRE, the nefarious organization in the James Bond novels and films. "Rather than have this entity like SPECTRE in the Bond [franchise] that is actually old men sitting around the table, we thought John Wick is like The Man with No Name," he says. "It's a very obtuse background, very obtuse subjects, very obtuse motivations."

Another source of inspiration for The High Table? Arthurian legend. "Chivalry is very interesting to us," Stahelski adds. "We said: What's the bad guy code of that? What's the honor among thieves?" Kolstad describes the organization as a "feudal system that's been in place for 2000 years." 

There's also room for the mystique of The High Table to grow in the future, but for now, their nomadic existence is part of the charm. Per Kolstad: "You know full well they've got a castle somewhere, but even they aren't quite sure where that is, so we're waiting for another movie, you know?"

The man who makes the coins. | Lionsgate

The coins are essential for upholding a "social contract."

While we're on the subject of "honor among thieves," I have to stop and talk about the coins. In Chapter 3, fans are introduced to Berrada, played by Game of Thrones' Jerome Flynn, who runs the facility where the coins are produced. But the little medallions aren't about their worth in gold. "It's a social contract," Stahelski says. "It's part membership, knowing who to trust in a criminal world would be important. So if you're dealing in cash or diamonds, anybody can get that. You can only operate the coins or go to the bad guy bank if you've proven that you are a part of that world, if you have services that are special."

Asia Kate Dillon's The Adjudicator -- who enforces The High Table's word across the world -- carries a black coin that signals her importance. "Don't kill her, that kind of thing," as Stahelski describes it. On the other hand, Laurence Fishburne's Bowery King, who has his own network of spies and information gatherers that pose as New York's homeless, operates outside of that financial system. 

the director
Making a deal with The Director. | Lionsgate

The key to John's past might be 'Oliver Twist' and ballet.

Huston's character and her training facility provide a glimpse into John's past, though it's not a particularly clear one. The idea of the school, according to Kolstad, was introduced by writer Shay Hatten, who came on to help with the Parabellum screenplay. "We weren't quite sure if John went to this school or was an outlier and it was something different," he says. "We've all seen those institutions where you're trained to be an assassin, and shit man, I love those movies as much as the next guy... but I want to make sure that John will always be an outlier."

The Wick movies have always flirted with Russian culture (one of John's nicknames is Baba Yaga, and the fighting is indebted to the Soviet-invented martial art sambo) and Huston's The Director fits within that motif. But Stahelski also sees her as a Fagin-type, after the character who trains orphans to become pickpockets in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist -- except she turns orphans into killers. And, well, dancers. New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck choreographed the ballet sequences.

"We thought if John had a background, these are pretty badass people he'd learn from," Stahelski says. "And I also know enough about ballet to know they are some of the toughest athletes on the planet."

John Wick rides a horse. | Lionsgate

Keanu spent three months learning how to ride a horse.

How did Stahelski get the idea to put John Wick on a horse and run him through the streets of New York? Simply by walking around the city, which remains John's home base. "Most of what you've seen in the New York aspect of any of the John Wicks is just me just walking around the streets," he says. "That's how we found the horse stables and [thought], 'Oh, there will be horses.'" And then Keanu got on a horse. "He was very good on a horse, but riding a horse on pavement in Brooklyn with motorcycles and hanging off the side is a learned skill," Stahelski says. "We got some of the best stunt trick riders to teach him how to do all that stuff, and he spent three months just riding a horse. But he's already pretty good on it."

John, Sofia, and two fierce pups. | Lionsgate

Obviously there are also assassin dogs.

Since I'm now on the subject of animal stunts, I might as well talk about the dogs that fight in tandem with Berry's Sofia. According to Kolstad, they wanted to incorporate fighting Belgian Malinois into Chapter 2, but couldn't fit them into the narrative. "We always joke about doing kung fu and gun fu and knife fu. [So] the joke of the second was dog fu, but we just ran out of time. But going into the third one, and to actually show fucking dog fu, it makes sense as much as it makes sense in the world of John Wick."

Eventually five dogs were hired to perform different skills, although Sofia walks around with two in her entourage. "Just the logistics of getting five dogs to Morocco is little tricky," Stahelski says. Because of the circumstances of the scene, Berry had to learn how to give the dogs marching orders just as she does on screen. "Halle had to be trained to specifically be their trainer on camera," Stahelski says. "Because we shoot so wide, you can't hide trainers. So when you see her character giving a command on screen, the words you're hearing are actual command words." And, yes, that is an actual dog named Sam who scales a building to take out a foe.

Naturally, this all fits within the John Wick ethos. Underneath all the mythology, these movies are about fights and a deep bonds with pets. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.