Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Universal Pictures/YouTube and Zero Media/YouTube
The first John Wick snack on you. It remains the lowest-grossing film in the franchise, the sort of movie that looked like a million other actioners until you actually saw it. Once you did, though, two things were clear: There were going to be a lot more John Wick movies coming, and there were going to be a whole lot of movies trying to be John Wick.
Finding the next John Wick has been a cottage Hollywood industry for nearly a decade now, to little success. (Netflix basically can’t stop churning out copycats.) But the franchise has been perhaps most imaginingly the launch point for the three primary people behind the first film (and, to varying degrees, the sequels): writer Derek Kolstad and co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (who was uncredited on the first film and, also, no relation). Kolstad wrote the next two John Wick movies; Stahelski directed them as well (and the upcoming fourth film), while Leitch moved onto a Wick-less (but very Wick-inspired) universe, directing big-budget Hollywood films. Not bad for some stunt guys with wild ideas.
But which of the non-Wick films are the best? With Leitch’s Bullet Train now out in theaters — and the vampire flick Day Shift, produced by Stahelski, hitting Netflix — we take a look at the movies this trio have written, directed, or produced away from the Wick Cinematic Universe. A lot of these films have the feel of a John Wick movie but, as you’ll see below, rarely the same spark. Turns out, duplicating the Wick magic is just as hard for these guys as it is for everyone else — and their attempts to branch out into new terrain has been equally fraught.
This woeful Jamie Foxx action-horror-comedy shares with John Wick a giddiness for world-building — in this case, dreaming up a reality in which bloodsuckers wreak havoc across the San Fernando Valley, prompting the need for a union of clandestine vampire-hunters whose sole purpose is to wipe them out. Produced by Chad Stahelski — and scored by frequent collaborator, composer Tyler Bates — Day Shift is a typically junky Netflix offering, featuring the expected over-the-top action sequences alongside a glib sense of humor that suggests we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously. But although Foxx and his nerdy partner Dave Franco have a few fun buddy-cop moments, the movie feels far removed from the wit and inventiveness of John Wickwith director JJ Perry (who did stunt work on the first two Wick pictures) delivering a fairly generic genre flick. It says something about Day Shift that Snoop Dogg, who plays a teres, gun-toting hunter, gives the best performance.
Reuniting with Brad Pitt, whom he first worked with on Fight Club serving as his stunt double, director David Leitch seemed to view Bullet Train as a way to break out of the Wick-ian straitjacket. And to his credit, Leitch escapes that pigeonhole … only to get trapped in another. Indeed, Bullet Train feels like a calculated study of the Tarantino/Ritchie formula, bringing together an oh-so-colorful collection of underworld operatives who are all riding the same train, the quippy dialogue flying as frenetically as the bullets. Pitt, alongside good actors such as Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Shannon, and others, works awfully hard to mimic the effortless cool of a Pulp Fiction, but even the fight scenes come across as derivative. Leitch proves he’s got style to burn, but substance and soul are a lot harder to come by.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead got her Wick on with this so-so action-thriller in which she’s a badass assassin who discovers she’s been poisoned, only having 24 hours to hunt down the person who killed her. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a visual-effects artist who previously helmed the utterly forgettable The Huntsman: Winter’s Wargives Kate the right amount of gritty, neon-lit atmosphere as Winstead handles her hand-to-hand combat with aplomb. Leitch produced the film, which was a passable Netflix throwaway hampered by dopey B-movie conventions. (Our steely hero Kate is saddled with a sassy young woman, played by Miku Martineau, whom she ends up having to protect — and, eventually, bond with.) But as compelling as Winstead is in the role — especially as Kate gets weaker over the course of the film due to the poison slowly tapping her strength — Kate never feels like more than a Frankenstein-esque patchwork of familiar plot points and predictable story twists. (Spoiler alert: There’s a prominent actor in a very minor supporting role, a clear hint that he’s actually more important to the narrative than we’re initially led to believe.) Go in with low expectations and maybe you won’t be too disappointed .
If nothing else, Dwayne Johnson seems positively related to be in a fast and furious movie that doesn’t feature Vin Diesel. And for a little while, this spinoff promises to be a pleasant lark, following the bickering Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) as they reluctantly team up to defeat the evil, superpowered terrorist Brixton (Idris Elba). A year after directing the commercially successful Deadpool 2Leitch further steps away from the stripped-down carnage of John Wick and Atomic Blonde for a more expansive suite of action set pieces meant to honor the increasing ludicrous mayhem of the fast and furious series. In the process, though, he loses some of his personality. There’s no shame in that — distinctive filmmakers get drained of their essence all the time once they sign on to a big, impersonal franchise — but Hobbs & Shaw is so much empty back-and-forth bantering and just-okay spectacle that the movie feels like a missed opportunity, especially considering how funny Johnson and Statham can be with the right material. This isn’t it, although it is a kick to see Vanessa Kirby steal the picture from her far more famous co-stars as Shaw’s formidable sister.
Leitch might have seemed a strange choice to helmet the Deadpool sequel, particularly because director Tim Miller had helped make the first film such a huge hit. But when there were creative differences between Miller and star Ryan Reynolds — a battle Miller was clearly not going to win — Leitch stepped in. Deadpool 2 has some solid action sequences, although it doesn’t necessarily feel like a John Wick movies. In fact, Reynolds said that Leitch was hired because he could make a small budget look bigger — which is true, but perhaps not the best use of the John Wick skill sets. Still, Leitch does a professional job — but now that he’s proven he can do this, it’s probably not worth his while to do another Deadpool installments. He and Reynolds both seem to understand this; the next sequel is directed by frequent Reynolds collaborator Shawn Levy, which is better for Leitch and surely worse for Deadpool 3.
Derek Kolstad has written every John Wick — and only John Wick movies, with this exception — since the first one in 2014. (For what it’s worth, he isn’t credited on 2023’s John Wick 4.) And based on the evidence of nobody, it is fair to say that he, uh, may be a bit of a one-trick pony. No matter: This fun pandemic-release actioner works largely because of the stunt casting of Bob Odenkirk as the mild-mannered dad who’s secretly a ruthless assassin, even if nobody is a little bit too much of a Wick clone. (Once again, we’ve got the Russian bad guys, the deadpan one-liners, the relentless set pieces, even the One Good Man who has been pushed too far.) That said, it turns out that watching Saul Goodman beat the life out of people for two hours is relentlessly entertaining. You cannot take your eyes off Odenkirk, although they probably shouldn’t press their luck with a sequel.
Remember Aeon Flux? Charlize Theron is such a natural action star — physically imposing and striking, of course, but also with an intensity that’s difficult to match — that when that movie imploded on the tarmac back in 2005, you wondered if she’d ever get another shot at it. But once Mad Max: Fury Road took off, led so much by Theron’s Furiosa, getting her own John Wick was the logical next step. Enter Atomic Blondewhich was also Leitch’s first solo directing gig after going uncredited alongside Stahelski on John Wick. Theron’s ability to simultaneously project icy aloofness and a wounded heart — alongside her considerable skill at punching people in the face — is pretty perfect as Lorraine, a double-crossed spy who has to fight her way out of all sorts of impossible situations. The plot itself fades into the background, but Theron’s fight scenes sear into the memory banks, both lithe and reckless, gloriously choreographed yet sloppily unpredictable. Can we get a John Wick–Lorraine team-up?