To justify a murderous massacre filled with infinite fusillades of gun-toting violence, 2014’s John Wick offers the death of a dog. To sever the connection between man and dog, a loyal, obedient and loving creature, is sacrilegious and yet if a dog’s untimely demise was enough to provoke such violent behavior, we would be nothing but a world full of John Wicks. And would that be such a vile idea?
Perhaps. But the history of revenge thrillers in which the John Wick franchise squarely embeds itself suggests enough of us have at least fantasized about the possibility. Though John Wick primarily attracts audiences for its simplicity of gun-fu action ecstasy, the film-makers clearly have more universal existential ideas on their mind. Sure, John Wick as played by Keanu Reeves is an ex-assassin left broken by his wife’s death and only capable of exorcising his pain through mass murder and vengeance. But he’s also an individual trapped in the system that created him, desperate to live freely and “retired” on his own terms, without the need to kill again.
Inside the John Wick universe, which expands this week with the release of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the rules that govern our society don’t apply. Instead they abide by an outlaw code established and enforced by a mysterious organization that we only ever witness in glimpses. Any assumption you hold about laws and punishment best be left at the door. When a policeman responds to a disturbance at John’s house – set off by him efficiently disposing a gang sent to kill him – and sees dead bodies strewn about the floor, the officer doesn’t apprehend John. He only asks, in half-surprise: “You, uh, working again?”
The deeper we fall into this underworld, the more realized and officious it becomes. This secret society has its own currency of gold coins, which pays for booze and specialty services like murder clean-up duty. There’s also an international hotel chain called The Continental, where no “business” (AKA assassination) is allowed, though a “sommelier” will outfit you with the finest firearms available. Contracts, sworn in blood by “markers”, aren’t to be breached. Any attempt to break them, or any rules this underworld society creates, results in you being “excommunicado”, losing all privileges and rights you previously had. A more accurate translation? Everyone can kill you now.
While the characters who have something to gain by participating in this world revel in its sovereignty, you quickly understand why John Wick does not. In the climactic showdown of the original film, John is about to finish off Russian mob boss Viggo. After sending armies of men to kill John – who only wanted vengeance for his dog – Viggo pleads with him to remember they’re both professionals, civilized ones at that. “Do I look civilized to you?” John growls, fully embroiled in id. This irony repeatedly smacks John in the face: even in an underworld of outlaws, you must play it as it lays. Maintain order and decency. Follow the rules.
Over the course of two films, we watch John slowly comprehend the only aim of these supposed structures is to control and contain him. John Wick: Chapter 2 involves the Italian boss Santino D’Antonio ordering John to execute his sister, so that Santino can claim her spot at the High Table. Every player intuits the harsh repercussions John will face as a result – it’s basically a suicide mission – but a “marker” signed between John and Santino forces him to abide regardless. No ifs, ands or buts. Honest morality and ethics only factors in when it serves the needs of those in positions of power.
And so John Wick, the character and film itself, respond in the enduring tradition of all classical anti-heroes in revenge thrillers: with dripping, indelible style. Be as individual and iconoclastic as possible. Not only with his gun-fu fighting mechanics – influenced by John Woo and his acolytes, admit the film-makers – but also tailored suits and classic American muscle cars. In this way, you could place John Wick in a lineage with the seminal antiheroes of Kill Bill, Mad Max, Machete and so on.
But director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad wear more foundational revenge thrillers on their sleeves in John Wick, as well as David Leitch, an uncredited co-director on the first movie who went on to direct Atomic Blonde. “One of the biggest inspirations for the film was Point Blank. We watched it on a loop in our office and there are a couple homages to that [in John Wick],” Leitch said in 2014.
John Boorman’s 1967 feature debut, which has influenced everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Michael Mann, follows Lee Marvin’s Walker after he’s been betrayed and left to die in Alcatraz by both his wife and partner in crime. Using nonlinear storytelling and French New Wave techniques, Boorman crafts Walker into a haunting specter driven single-handedly by vengeance; he doesn’t seem to eat, drink or be capable of love any more. When his homicidal journey brings him into contact with The Organization, an impersonal, corporatized organized crime network, Walker believes he will finally receive some answers and his money. Instead, he receives neither and the film concludes with Walker backing into the shadows, the only place he feels comfortable anymore.
According to Boorman’s DVD commentary, Point Blank is about Marvin’s depraved and dehumanizing experiences in the second world war, with his character Walker attempting to reclaim his life. Reeves has echoed those sentiments with regards to John Wick, stating his character too is staking back ownership over his lost autonomy.
But in narrative and aesthetics, John Wick more closely matches Seijun Suzuki’s 1966 classic Tokyo Drifter. Suzuki, also a second world war veteran, was an inimitable stylist who specialized in Japanese B-movies, particularly in the yakuza genre. Tokyo Drifter regards the mythic gangster Tetsu’s attempt to leave the gangster lifestyle and go legit, only to be stymied by various rivals and opportunists. (Sound familiar?) Scenes play across jazz clubs, saloons and back rooms that explode with saturated color and bebop-style editing, Suzuki’s style ratcheted up to an 11 whenever possible.
Point Blank and Tokyo Drifter aimed to subvert the institutions that produced such characters. Preceding Point Blank, Hollywood declared that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin” via the Hays Code, a censorship decree of the 40s and 50s that lost its control throughout the 60s due to a thriving counterculture and success of foreign films in domestic markets. Suzuki – who used his vibrant expressions as refuge from Japan’s militarism, writes Manohla Dargis – was eventually fired by the studio Nikkatsu for producing “incomprehensible” movies (he’d win a lawsuit against the studio a few years later).
You often see revenge thrillers dismissed as blood and bang-bang trash, but the genre can disguise a politically subversive message just as well as any other picture. At a time when our political leaders so blatantly dismiss decorum and ethics, when most millennials would rather “burn it all down” and when ambiguous corporate forces regulate how individuals present themselves online through algorithms and PC policing, it’s little wonder why John Wick resonates. Who doesn’t imagine breaking the law here and again in our rule-stuffed society? Maybe just don’t touch anyone’s dog. We don’t need anyone going full John Wick any time soon. Going half-John Wick, however, remains permissible.