Some movies are so good, they become a genre all their own. Take Diehard, which launched countless imitators in the mold of everyman hero John McClane (even as its sequels forgot he wasn’t actually a superhero). Or Sharknado, which inspired a wave of bizarre movie mashups. But when it comes to inspiring endless copycats that never quite measure up to the original, one movie stands alone — and it’s streaming now on Netflix.
Released almost a decade ago, John Wick launched a new era for its star, Keanu Reeves, not to mention a franchise that now boasts four movies and multiple spinoffs. The film imagines a secret society of assassins that spans the globe, with Reeves’ Wick as its deadliest member, one pulled out of retirement after some low-level thugs murder his pet dog.
It’s a brilliant premise that’s inspired a lot of knockoffs as various actors tried to cash in on what seems like a simple concept. But for every Nobody (Bob Odenkirk’s unsurprisingly excellent spin on the John Wick phenomenon), there’s a Clean (Adrian Brody’s extremely forgettable thriller about a garbage man who murders a bunch of bad guys for reasons I once knew but refuse to Google).
What makes John Wick work better than all its imitators is hard to define, but a few things stand out. For one, Keanu Reeves remains one of the most entertaining actors around — as long as his director doesn’t make too many emotional demands. For another, the franchise understands that fans want to know more about its mysterious assassin universe, and each movie drops new breadcrumbs of information. Finally, the action continues to be uncompromisingly awesome thanks to stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski understands better than almost anyone else in Hollywood.
But while Stahelski remains untouchable, the latest (and perhaps greatest) John Wick imitator comes from the last director you’d expect: David Ayer. The filmmaker best known for 2016’s The Suicide Squad, Fury (aka, the Brad Pitt tank movie), and Training Day just dropped The Beekeeper, which stars Jason Statham as both a literal beekeeper and a member of a secret military organization that goes by the same name. Ridiculous concept aside (or perhaps because of it), The Beekeeper is actually pretty decent. But it’s still no John Wick.
Ayer tells Inverse he took inspiration from classic movies that predate John Wick, including Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours, but readily admits that Keanu’s influence has made action fans a lot harder to impress these days.
“Audiences are so sophisticated when it comes to action now,” he says, “and obviously at the absolute forefront has been John Wick and Chad [Stahelski].”
Thankfully, Ayer had a secret weapon: the fighting British bulldog known as Jason Statham.
“I always bring my A game to set, but Jason taught me that there’s an A-plus game,” the director says. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of action. He does his own stunts. He does everything himself. And he’s very demanding of excellence because he knows the standard is higher now than ever.”
While there are plenty of similarities between The Beekeeper and John Wick, Ayer says one of the biggest differences is the approach to action. While Stahelski and Reeves helped popularize a frenzied mixture of pistols and hand-to-hand combat, Statham’s protagonist takes a more practical approach.
“It’s really about a guy who’s going to use anything in the environment to get the job done, whether it’s a stapler or a telephone,” Ayer says. “That was kind of the fun of it: coming up with creative ways that Jason can enact vengeance against bad guys.”
Whether The Beekeeper can launch a franchise to rival John Wick seems unlikely, but it remains a top contender for best knockoff. You can watch Jason Statham raise bees and murder bad guys in theaters right now, but, if we’re being honest, you’re better off just rewatching John Wick for the umpteenth time instead.