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The Wickedness That Man Do: The Logic, Structure and Morality of “John Wick”

The John Wick films remain a minor miracle.

John Wick was the product of an era where big budget action films were increasingly moving away from in-camera effects and practical stunt work towards computer-generated spectacle. The original film was designed to consciously showcase the craft involved in stunt work, a profession that is still undervalued in filmmaking circles. (Notably, there is no Academy Award for “Best Stunts.”) The original film was designed from the ground up in order to give a group of stunt artists the opportunity to showcase their craft for theatrical audiences, at a point in time where a lot of the best stunt choreography was going direct-to-video.

It certainly works on those terms. The films in the series are among the most impressive action films of the twenty-first century, showcasing the commitment of the stuntmen working on them. The climax of John Wick: Chapter II and the opening thirty minutes of John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum rank among the most visceral action ever captured on film. The films even acknowledge their influences and inspirations; the opening scenes of Chapter II feature Sherlock Jr. projected onto the front of a building, while Chapter III broadcasts The General on a Time’s Square billboard. This is not arrogance, but aspiration.

However, there is something interesting happening beneath all of this. The story running through John Wick, Chapter II and Chapter III is largely incidental; the tale of a man who lost his puppy and who embarked upon a murderous rampage that sucked him back into a life that he long ago abandoned. The world-building is impressive, but abstract; the characters navigate a byzantine social structure of rules and codes that govern an underworld of assassins, arms dealers and black market surgeons. The whole set-up is incredibly heightened, and incredibly fun. It is absurd, but enjoyably so.

At the same time, these aspects of the John Wick have a strange and powerful resonance. The entire John Wick series is built around the idea of codes of honour and rigid social hierarchies, in a way that feels more than just incidental. This world of gold coins and killer hotels, of a New York City seemingly populated entirely by murderous assassins, is one of the most striking aspects of the series. It also feels the most pointed and timely. The John Wick films are designed as visceral thrill machines, but there are aspects of the films that resonate beyond that.

In their own weird way, the John Wick films seem like the perfect answer to the modern troubled cultural moment.

Watching the three films in the series, it is surprising how (relatively) light the world-building is in John Wick, especially compared to Chapter II and Chapter III. Of course, there is still a lot of world-building involved. John Wick introduces the concept of the Continental, the hotel for assassins that has become surprisingly influential; on top of the rumoured spin-off, it also seems likely to have informed at least some of the production of Hotel Artemis. Similarly, John Wick introduces concepts like the gold coins, the juxtaposition of the mundane world with the world of assassins, and characters like Winston and Charon.

The narrative and thematic emphasis in the original John Wick is very much on the title character and his journey, the question of whether he can ever truly escape his past or whether he is destined to revert into the unstoppable killing machine that he was before he met his wife. As with the dead puppy, this is all fairly basic storytelling mechanics. John’s descent into the criminal underworld – it is no coincidence that the concierge is named “Charon” and that the currency is gold coins – is standard tragedy, a literal and figurative regression from a killer who had tried to be a better man.

As such, the original John Wick places emphasis on the rules and codes of this underground society as a contrast to the primal instincts that drive the hit man’s trade. John Wick is a man capable of incredible brutality, as demonstrated during the franchise’s countless bloody and messy fight sequences, so it makes sense to juxtapose this barbarism with an air of civility. Indeed, the franchise repeatedly makes a point to emphasise that the Continental is a “civilised” space. Perkins is murdered for breaking the rules in John Wick, fight sequences are interrupted when they spill over into the hotel in Chapter II and Chapter III.

John Wick repeatedly stresses the idea that the assassins use this layer of civility to insulate themselves from the violence that they inflict upon themselves and others. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Viggo Tarasov appeals to civility to sooth and calm John. “John?” he suggests during an early phone call. “Let us not resort to our baser instincts and handle this like civilized men, to move on…” John is less than convinced. At the climax of the film, Viggo pleads, “What happened, John? We were professionals. Civilized.” John hisses back, “Do I look civilized to you?”

The rules exist to impose a sense of order on the universe. Indeed, there is some suggestion that the action is governed by a higher set of rules and structures than those imposed by Winston at the Continental. The film returns time and again to god’s-eye shots of New York City, presenting the city as an overlay of interlocking networked streets, patterns in concrete. Torturing John, Viggo taunts the assassin with the suggestion that divine authority imposes its own order on the universe. “But in the end, a lot of us are rewarded for our misdeeds, which is why God took your wife and unleashed you upon me.”

This is perhaps the closest that the John Wick franchise comes to explaining the religious imagery that permeates the films beyond the rich and evocative aesthetic that such imagery provides; the use of Latin, the church stash house in John Wick, the Roman setting in Chapter II, the use of the crucifix as a ticket in Chapter III. There is also the tattoo on John’s back, which receives a brand at its centre in Chapter III. There is a sense in which the world of John Wick is governed by rules, and that the original film suggests that those rules might be enforced by the ultimate higher power that towers over the world of men.

To be fair, the original John Wick was released in 2014. The world was a different place. This may explain why the emphasis shifts subtly but firmly in Chapter II and Chapter III. Indeed, Chapter II and Chapter III move beyond the idea that divine authority might be punishing John Wick and inflicting some cosmic sense of balance and justice. Instead, Chapter II and Chapter III suggest that it falls to men to provide structure and reason to the world through which they move. Notably, in Chapter II and Chapter III, John is not held ransom to the impulses of a vengeful deity, but to the rigid and codified norms of a man-made society.

“You got out once,” Winston tells Wick in John Wick. “You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths.” In Chapter II, it is revealed that Winston was not talking metaphorically; after all, the John Wick films work best when they literalise the obstacles facing their hero. The “something” that reaches out to drag Wick “back into its depths” is Santino D’Antonio, who calls in a “marker” from the hitman, a debt offered for his assistance in the “impossible task” that helped Wick escape the underworld all those years ago.

Of course, the marker is literal. It is a disk, marked with the blood of the person who owes. When the task is complete, the person who is claiming the debt marks it with their own bloody print. Winston keeps track of these transactions in a ledger studiously. Even after D’Antonio betrays Wick and takes out a bounty on the assassin, Winston insists on marking their account as balanced. Documentation is important. These interactions are all measured and codified. Business is conducted in accordance with the rules, with the paperwork properly filed.

Chapter II repeatedly stresses that Wick is governed by the debt that he owes to D’Antonio. He is frustrated at being drawn back into the underworld, but Winston warns him that he must honour the promise that he made, which has been properly registered and recorded. “Do what the man asks,” Winston advises Wick. “Be free. Then, if you want to go after him, burn his house down, be my guest. But until then…” Wick sighs, “Rules.” Winston does not echo Wick’s derision. “Exactly. Rules. Without them, we’d live with the animals.”

What is interesting about Chapter II and Chapter III is the way in which the rules serve to protect Wick as much as they trap him. They provide an understandable framework for navigating a complicated and confusing world. The Continental is a literal safe haven. Wick breaks the rules at the climax of Chapter II by murdering D’Antonio on the grounds of the Continental, and is rendered “excommunicado” for his sins. There is also a bounty placed on his head. The opening act of Chapter III finds Wick struggling to survive without the security offered by the framework of the rules and structures.

Notably, Wick is forced to fall back on a secondary set of rules and social structures outside the world of assassins. He visits the assassin school where he was trained, and calls in a personal favour from “the Director.” He warns her, “You have an obligation. And I am owed.” Again, this debt is measured in literal terms, reflected in the crucifix that Wick dangles in from of him during their conversation. Later, Wick visits Sofia and reminds her of a favour that she owes him. To ensure her cooperation, Wick uses the same sort of “marker” that D’Antonio used to drag him back in.

Chapter III makes a point to codify these relationships as implicitly personal. Wick has a strong personal association to both “the Director” and Sofia. The conversations between Wick and “the Director” are coded as parental, even if this is never confirmed; she might be his mother, or simply a very close teacher. Similarly, Wick helped to hide Sofia’s daughter, to spirit her away from this life. This gives the pair an almost familial bond, and Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry play their interactions as a divorced couple. (The Casablanca setting evokes the idea of squabbling former lovers, alluding to the film of the same name.)

Of course, these relationships are still structured and codified. They are navigated through ritual and symbol. Nobody can count on promises or friendship. Wick himself learns this at the climax of Chapter III. He is inducted back into the world of assassins, and tasked with a brutal assignment; Wick is instructed to murder Winston. However, confronted with his old ally, Wick cannot do it. Chapter III repeatedly codifies Wick and Winston as friends. The Adjudicator suggests as much when examining D’Antonio’s body, and Wick and Winston confirm it at the climax.

However, this is a friendship that is not measured in markers, that is not defined by a clear ledger of what is owed and what has been delivered. This is a true human relationship, one unbound and one unstructured. There is no codification of the relationship between Wick and Winston. Wick decides to side with Winston against the system, representing another transgression against the rules to mirror the transgression at the end of Chapter II. Again, at the end of Chapter III, Wick suffers for breaking the rules. Winston betrays him, shooting him off the roof of the hotel and leaving him for dead.

This lends the John Wick films the structure of a Greek tragedy or a horror movie. Wick is repeatedly warned about the dangers of violating the codes and structures of the underworld, then violates those codes and suffers horrific consequences. In John Wick, he is warned against wading back into the underworld, but does so anyway, opening himself up to D’Antonio’s request. In Chapter II, he is repeatedly reminded of the sanctity of the assassins’ code, but then violates it to murder D’Antonio, opening himself up to exile. In Chapter III, he is instructed to kill Winston, but spares his friend, only to be betrayed.

Repeatedly, Wick is reminded of the rules that govern this world, only to transgress and to be punished for that act of transgression. Those acts of transgression open Wick up to violence and brutality. They compound his suffering. Often, they are motivated by emotional and human considerations. Indeed, the audience is most likely to side with Wick in each of these cases. In John Wick, he comes back to avenge an adorable puppy that was a gift from his dead wife. In Chapter II, he murders D’Antonio out of sheer frustration. In Chapter III, he trusts Winston as a friend. In each case, there are consequences.

The climax of Chapter III literalises this with a room made of glass. Winston explains that the room was built as a guard against mankind’s baser instincts, a wide open space where people cannot hide things from one another. The irony is that Winston is still able to conceal his manipulations from Wick, even in that space. However, the room is full of glass cabinets that are so clean that they are almost invisible. They become an obstacle course for Wick to navigate, like the social structures of the underworld.

In a nice touch, the glass in the space is a lot stronger than glass generally is in action films. Characters are repeatedly thown through glass, but occasionally the glass withstands the impact. At one point, Wick fires at an enemy only for the glass to withstand the shots. Like the social structures around Wick, the glass is surprisingly resilient, but can be shattered with enough force. As with a lot of material in the John Wick films, it works both as a clever visual element and a potent piece of symbolism. Everybody in the John Wick franchise finds themselves in a glass case.

The obvious point of comparison for all of this is The Matrix. The Matrix is another film about an illusory world layered on top of the real world, a computer simulation literally built from lines of code. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski both worked as stunt performers on The Matrix. Actors Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves are both veterans of The Matrix. In fact, scenes from the films even recall The Matrix; the sterile neon glow evoking a heightened reality, a world in which every person is potentially an enemy. The scene in Central Park at the end of Chapter II most obviously feels like a scene from The Matrix.

Both the John Wick and Matrix films are stories about rules and structures built around people, working as a metaphor for an individual’s relationship with larger society. In the Matrix films, the eponymous simulation plays as a metaphor for late capitalism, a system that placates people while literally feeding on them. The only response is a revolution to bring down the system and break on through to a real world. In the John Wick films, these systems are more abstract metaphors for the relationships that exist between individuals; the barriers and boundaries necessary for a society to function.

This gets at the big contrast between John Wick and The Matrix. In The Matrix, the system needs to be literally and figuratively dismantled; people need to break free of the existing structures to live in the real world and to see things how they really were. To a certain extent, this is a result of the culture from which The Matrix emerged. The nineties were a different time, relatively peaceful and relatively prosperous for the United States. The country was stable. There were no enemies to challenge, no worlds to conquer. As such, there was room for introspection and reflection. There was a deep existential ennui.

After all, so much late nineties pop culture is built around similar logic, the idea that the entire world is an illusion and that illusion needs to be shattered; Fight Club, Dark City, The Truman Show, Harsh Realm, even The X-Files. There was a desire to question the way that the world had been built, and to interrogate who benefited from the existing social structures. These stories spoke to a broader millennial malaise. As with most pop culture, they reflected the broader culture from which they emerged.

In contrast, the John Wick films – especially the more rigid world of Chapter II and Chapter III – are a product of a different time. They arrived at a point where existing social structures appear vulnerable and shaken. Sense of community is in decline. Social media has arguably fractured individuals’ sense of a shared reality governed by rules or truths. Across the world, democratic structures are under assault. Democratic and social norms are being eroded. Existing social structures are being attacked in a profound existential manner, often by cynical actors operating in an abstract and subversive fashion.

In this context, it makes sense that Chapter II and Chapter III are so fascinated with the rigid social structures of this imaginary underworld. The underworld is governed by clearly codified rules and regulations, what Berrada describes in Chapter III as “the commercialisation of relationships” and “the social contract.” Everybody in the world of John Wick knows exactly what is owed of them and when. The world is a safe and ordered place, a civilised structure laid as a foundation against the chaotic hearts of men. What had seemed horrifying in The Matrix now seems almost comforting.

The John Wick films imagine a world in which a society of assassins and murderers still makes more sense than the world that lies beyond it. That is a very timely idea.

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