John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum got off to a stunning start this weekend, with a frankly superb $57.025 million domestic weekend debut. That includes a $22.6 million on Friday, which included $5.9 million in Thursday previews. It’s a record-busting opening weekend for Lionsgate outside of the last Twilight sequel (Breaking Dawn Part II) and the four Hunger Games movies. After severe underperformances from Hellboy and Longshot, John Wick 3 was the anti-hero they needed. It’s also Keanu Reeves’ second-biggest opening weekend (sans inflation) behind the $91 million Fri-Sun launch (of a $134 million Thurs-Sun debut) of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003.
Heck, adjusted for inflation, it’s behind only Bram Stoker’s Dracula ($30.5 million in 1992/$64 million adjusted), Matrix Revolutions ($48 million in 2003/$70 million adjusted, or what it made in the first four days of its $84m Wed-Sun debut) and Matrix Revolutions ($91 million in 2003/$134 million adjusted, which is ironically what it earned in its Thurs-Sun debut back in 2003). This boffo opening means that Lionsgate’s little accidental franchise could can now go toe-to-toe with the biggest non-ensemble action franchises. John Wick now stands alongside James Bond, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and Bryan Mills.
That opening weekend is bigger than the $49 million opening weekend in 2012 ($55 million adjusted-for-inflation) of Liam Neeson’s Taken 2. It’s right between the $55 million opening weekend of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in 2015 and the $61 million Fri-Sun debut of Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 2018. It’s understandably behind the $67 million-to-$88 million opening weekends of the last three Daniel Craig 007 flicks (Quantum of Solace in 2008, Skyfall in 2012 and Spectre in 2015) but it’s toe-to-toe with The Bourne Supremacy ($52 million in 2004), The Bourne Ultimatum ($69 million in 2007) and Jason Bourne ($59 million in 2016).
Most of those films are, all due respect, PG-13 action movies featuring a combination of a huge movie star, a rarified property and/or a major studio. While Lionsgate is the biggest of the mini-majors (and thus in a prime position to release an apologetic grindhouse actioner like John Wick) and Keanu Reeves is beloved by the world over, this is an R-rated franchise created entirely from whole cloth entirely rooted in quality and character-specific star power. It’s not starring a peak-popular Tom Cruise (or a peak popular Harrison Ford) or based on a beloved TV show (Mission: Impossible or The Fugitive) or beloved literary series (the Robert Ludlum Bourne books or the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan series).
The closest comparison would be the Taken series (which was a not-based-on-anything action franchise starring Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills) but even those received far inferior reviews (especially the sequels) and peaked at the first sequel. For a third installment of a series that began as a last-minute studio pick-up to end up here on its third-go-around… whoa.
The first John Wick, written by Derek Kolstad and co-directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (who went on to direct Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Hobbs and Shaw) was released in late October of 2014 to strong reviews, solid buzz and a certain generational coronation for its leading man. The kids who grew up worshipping Reeves for any number of iconic movies (Bill and Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, etc.) were now old enough to be the critical establishment, and we weren’t going to take any more disrespect directed at one of our more engrossing performers.
The film was projected to open with $7 million, but the positive variables turned that into a $14.4 million debut weekend. Cue a $43 million domestic and $86 million worldwide cume on a $30 million budget. That’s not an obscene figure, but the actioner had the makings of a sequel that could be a true-blue breakout sequel. For those who came in late, a breakout sequel is when a movie gets good reviews, strong word-of-mouth and long legs which leads to audiences discovering it late into its theatrical run and consistently in its post-theatrical lifespan. And then, consequently, the sequel just blows the predecessor away on opening weekend, as all that earned goodwill pays off.
Think, for example, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Scream 2, Pitch Perfect 2, The Dark Knight and, oh yeah, The Matrix Reloaded. And so, it was with Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 2. With even better reviews and a clear upgrade in production values and visual pizazz, the Chad Stahelski-directed and Derek Kolstad-penned John Wick 2 more-than-doubled its predecessor’s opening weekend with a $30.4 million launch in February of 2017. More impressively, it was leggier than the first film and earned $92 million domestic and $171 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.
And now, here we are, with the (around) $55 million-budgeted John Wick: Chapter 3 continuing to ride that wave of earned audience goodwill. It helps that the reviews are just as good, the movie is gorgeous and stylish enough that it demands a theater and Keanu Reeves has been charming the pants off the Internet at large over the last few weeks. I’m not going to say that his cameo in the trailer for the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe (starring Ali Wong and Randall Park) was a huge factor, but that trailer dropped right on cue on Thursday morning for another round of “we love Keanu” online fawning.
And so, John Wick: Chapter 3 is a sequel to a breakout sequel that is breaking out/up just as much as the second film, which is almost unprecedented. It is opening not like The Bourne Ultimatum or Skyfall (a 33% higher opening weekend than The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace respectively) but, (amazingly) like Captain America: Civil War and Toy Story 3.
Civil War added Iron Man as a co-star, a bunch of cameo-ing Avengers, an Avengers versus Avengers fight scene along with intros for Spider-Man and Black Panther while acting as a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron. It opened with $179 million, an 88% jump from The Winter Soldier’s $95 million opening weekend. Toy Story 3 had 11 years of inflation and a 3-D bump and opened 92% higher ($110.3 million) than Toy Story 2 ($57.4 million of an $80 million Wed-Sun Thanksgiving debut in 1999).
John Wick: Chapter 3 (which, by the by, has now earned $92.225 million worldwide) offered a few fun new cast members (Halle Berry for example) but otherwise more of the same. Yet it opened 87.5% higher than John Wick: Chapter 2. In terms of wide release threequel to wide release sequel (that didn’t decrease from the first installment), that may be a record opening weekend bump. It’s certainly near-unprecedented within these specific variables.
There were some franchises, like Spy Kids and Scary Movie, which opened big, dipped with the first sequel and then roared back with the third installment. Some franchises (the first three Fast and Furious movies, Dark Knight, Scream, Pitch Perfect) opened so high on the second go-around that there was nowhere to go but down or just slightly upward. There are also franchises that began in limited release but whose sequels got wide openings (like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi saga). And there are plenty of trilogies that went up by a respectable degree each time out, like the middle Fast and Furious movies, The Lord of the Rings, X-Men and Thor.
But going three-in-a-row in wide release each time (sorry Rocky or Nightmare on Elm Street) with this level of a bump between installments? The only comparison with no “cheating” (a holiday debut for one of the installments, a limited release at the start, a 3-D boost, a decade of inflation or massive added value elements) is the initial Lethal Weapon trilogy, which went from a $7 million debut in 1987 to a $20 million debut in 1989 to a $33 million debut in 1992. Otherwise, John Wick is in a league entirely of its own.
John Wick pulled off almost never happens in modern franchise cinema. Whether it legs like Mad Max: Fury Road (3.3x for a $189 million cume) or plays closer to Captain America: Civil War (still a $130 million domestic finish), the film has an outside shot at being the biggest domestic grosser in the month of May (your move, Aladdin and Godzilla). It’s not going to save Hollywood or anything, but the John Wick franchise will be the all-too-rare example of a homegrown, non-IP franchise that is A) entirely original and rooted in star power and B) goes from a B-level series to an A-level tentpole entirely based on quality and goodwill toward its predecessors and its leading man.
Is this what hope feels like?