Obviously includes spoilers for John Wick 3, so don’t read if you haven’t watched.
When John Wick 2 came out, I released my definitive, unassailable list of best action movie characters. It was released prior to my viewing of John Wick 2, and the Baba Yaga ranked third. Two amazing displays later, it’s time to reconsider John’s placement amongst the greatest action heroes in cinematic history. After getting 128 kills in 2 and, by my initial count 76 kills in 3 (yes, I counted during the movie. Just like I counted during 2) (I’m disappointed in myself for losing track of the headshots by the end, but I think it was in the 40 range), I’m comfortable putting John ahead of John Matrix and 1a to John McClane’s 1.
The battle between Johns Wick and McClane hinges on how influential to the genre you find John McClane. To me, he’s the most important action movie character ever because he blended the swaggering one-liners of Stallone and Arnold with the reluctant everyman persona that would become a dominant force during the 90s. He’s what every action hero since Die Hard is based off, just like Die Hard itself serves as inspiration for 95% of all action movies released since. However, don’t look now, but the industry is shifting. To what, you may ask? To a post-Wick world where the fighting is realistic, heavily choreographed, and gun-centric and the heroes are stoic and out for revenge. Don’t believe me? Go watch Atomic Blonde, Polar, Peppermint, Hotel Artemis, The Foreigner, or like, any action movie released since 2014. In ten years, we might look back on the two Johns as the major signposts on the road to action movie nirvana, both taking the greatness of the previous generation and molding it into a new one that tries, but never fully succeeds, in living up to the original character’s highs.
McClane remains the true number one for one reason and one reason alone: he didn’t have any help. Before the third installment, John Wick was a one-man army. After seeing Halle Berry put up a Jamal Crawford 50 point game off the bench and Lance Riddick trade his coat for a shotgun I’m looking back at the McClane sidekicks and realizing they only ever hindered him. Samuel L. was just a store owner. Justin Long was Justin Long. Jai Courtney? Yikes. John McClane has been 2007 LeBron his whole career, only he hasn’t made the Finals in 20 years. Wick’s supporting cast is only getting better. Had Zero survived, he would have been the perfect running mate to challenge Winston and the High Table in the fourth one (I need to go to that sushi stand, even if the chef is dead). The various High Table members always bring it (I’ll have some thoughts later, but let’s just say that when I saw it on Sunday morning, I was convinced Berrada was the only Jerome Flynn character I’d be seeing that day). Fishburne and the adjudicator somehow survived. The Wick-verse is deeper than the Pacific Ocean. The Die Hard universe is not. No character in action history has had to completely carry a franchise quite like McClane has. Atlas himself thinks McClane had to carry a lot of weight in the last, like, four Die Hards. That’s too much to overlook. I’m not saying Wick can never be number one, he can. But in order to dethrone the king? That’ll take something special.