Spoiler Alert: This article contains many spoilers for John Wick and John Wick 2
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A “Pure” Action Movie?
John Wick 2 (and the original for that matter) are fairly straightforward action movies. They stick so purely to the classical constraints of that genre that they border on cliche. One of the ways they deal with that is by embracing the cliches, but not by leveraging parody or humor. The high quality of the action sequences certainly help the films standout from ordinary “pure” action films, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that makes up the “John Wick Experience.”
Is John Wick “Original?”
So what is it that makes these films so enjoyable (and I do find them highly enjoyable)? There are plot elements which might seem designed to get us emotionally invested in the character, like the dead wife and dog, but they’re given such short shrift it’s hard to really make that claim. Instead, these seem like more examples of the filmmakers choosing to embrace the cliche thereby allowing them to truncate the process of establishing an emotional connection between the audience and the character. We’ve seen plenty of dead dog revenge movies like Shooter and I Am Legend; we’ve seen plenty of dead wife revenge movies like The Big Heat, Death Wish, and Braveheart. We’ve even seen other dead wife/dead dog stories like Mad Max.
The Movie’s Anima
We’re so familiar with these genres that the filmmakers can practically skip the whole thing. We never even meet the dead wife. We see just enough to be able to answer the question, “Why is this guy so sad?” Then we only meet the dog briefly as well as if we are again being shown just enough to be able to answer the question, “Why is this guy so mad?” “Because he has encountered people so evil they are willing to murder an absolutely adorable and innocent creature.” Not complicated. So uncomplicated that the second movie doesn’t even bother establishing a new motivating force. It basically just reminds us of the dead wife and the dead dog and then places John into a situation that he has no choice but to fight his way out of. It seems to me that it is actually this issue, the issue of choice and so of free will, that provides the philosophical anima (animating force or “soul”) of the movie.
Wick immediately establishes himself as a man bound very strongly by rules. His dog was murdered and so the man responsible must die, no matter the cost. His wife wasn’t murdered. It would have been perfectly reasonable to determine that, while murdering a dog is certainly extremely “not nice,” it might not justify taking on the mob. But as the villain in the film says to his son (the dog-murderer), “John is a man of focus, commitment, sheer will… something you know very little about.” And this is the sense you get from the film. Not that Wick is so much out for revenge (though he is) but that his focus has been attracted to a specific target, and that once this happens, there’s nothing which can stop him from killing that target. Not even his own mind.
Is John Wick “Death?”
Characters repeatedly refer to him as “death himself.” But the character of “death” is typically a mere agent. Death is rarely the one calling the shots. In other words, Death has no free will. It is this absence of free will that often makes such portrayals so compelling. Death often doesn’t desire to perform his function, but must do so nonetheless. It is often our hope that Death will resist his nature this one time that drives our interest in the story, but he rarely does, and it is this seeming inevitability that further fuels our interest. An example of this dynamic can be seen in Meet Joe Black.
This trend continues in John Wick 2 which begins where the first movie left off: with Wick trying to restore his life back to what it was before his dog was murdered by retrieving the car that was stolen from him the same night his dog was murdered. Note that he isn’t trying to restore his life to what it was before his wife died. There are no love interests in the movie. Wick’s dog was murdered and so 1. the man responsible must die, 2. he must acquire a new dog, and 3. he must get his car back. Risking death at countless moments in order to accomplish these goals is irrelevant.
The first movie, therefore, establishes that Wick is totally bound by the principles he holds. When events happen that transgress his “code” (and I mean that in every possible way), he responds with action and does not stop until his programmatic response is fully executed. Once we understand this, we no longer need a tragedy to understand why Wick can be “activated.” We only need to see Wick’s “hard-coding” being exploited, which is accomplished in the second film by the use of a “marker.”
We are told that long ago, before even the events which took place in the first movie, Wick gave a blood oath in exchange for help in getting out of the mob. Context clues reveal that the blood oath was a commitment to execute anyone the holder of the marker wishes. The filmmakers very cleverly embody this oath in a medallion marked with a bloody fingerprint which presumably belonged to Wick.
This medallion is actually a very unique form of money with a total money supply of one unit. The medallion contains Wick’s bloody fingerprint, an anti-counterfeiting feature which guarantees that the value of the medallion is established by Wick’s promise to honor it much like the value of a US Dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” The value of the medallion is backed by the “full faith and credit of John Wick.” Though the issue is never explored, presumably the holder of the token could have sold that medallion for a hefty price (given Wick’s skill set) and Wick would have been equally bound. After all, in the movie Wick performs the action requested of him despite the fact that it was no more desirable or safe than not doing it. But not immediately.
Just Say “No”
At first, Wick refuses to honor the marker telling the holder of it, a crime lord named Santino D’Antonio, “I’m not that guy anymore.” He is claiming that he is no longer bound by the marker because that deal was made by his past self. He is attempting to escape his fate by disconnecting from his past. But it is no mistake that the second movie begins right where the first left off. Wick just spent a whole movie as the “spirit of vengeance” only to claim (seemingly less than 24 hours later) that he is no longer “that guy.”
Santino acknowledges that the man before him can’t help, but that “he” can.
“You Must Repent of Your Sins to be Saved”
At first it is unclear who “he” is until Santino uses a rocket launcher to destroy Wick’s last vestige of his new life: his home. Instead of prompting Wick toward revenge Wick seems to register it as punishment for violating the marker. Perhaps he recognized that his words were not matching his actions and the penalty for his sin was the destruction of his home. Despite having “nothing left to lose” Wick instead responds by fulfilling the obligation embodied in the marker — by becoming the man who could help Santino.
Santino leverages Wick’s commitment (embodied in the medallion) to have his sister, Gianna (another crime lord), murdered. Wick clearly doesn’t want to do it or believe that it is right, and we eventually learn that even after performing the action he remains a target of Santino as a “loose end.” Wick must have known that if Santino failed to respond to the murder of his sister he would betray his involvement. Wick seems fully aware of how everything will play out, and yet he “chooses” to be bound by his commitment, even after being the victim of an attack. He could have simply violated his oath and taken the fight to Santino instead of first taking on Gianna’s army, and then taking on Santino’s. He could have even solicited Gianna’s help. She would no doubt want to protect herself from her brother. Though perhaps not.
Venturing Into the Underworld
Part of what makes the world of John Wick so engrossing is that they symbolically represent the underworld so faithfully. That’s not to say that the representation is REALISTIC. The world is highly stylized, but the story pays very special attention to the nature of how black market economies operate. For example, black markets rely heavily on untraceable money. That’s why US Dollars and Bitcoin are so popular in such markets. In John Wick large gold coins of ambiguous value are used. In John Wick 2, they even go through the trouble of showing us some of these coins being made.
For such an action based film I was shocked by how much attention was paid to making sure that the monetary system was intuitively implemented. In fact, the gold coins seemed similar in nature to the blood oath medallion, just more liquid. The authority which distributes these coins appears to be the Continental, and providing the coin to someone seems to entitle the giver to a unit of the recipient’s services. You give a coin to the Continental, you get a room. You give a coin to someone who hides people, and they hide you. Like all money, the value of the money is determined by the players of the game intuiting said value through repeated gaming sessions. Presumably the Continental is tasked with adjudicating any failure to live up to the implied value of the coin.
Societies that lack powerful legal systems tend to emphasize the concept of “honor” probably because it is an alternative method for establishing trust. The characters in John Wick are generally some of the most successful members of such societies so it should not come as much of a surprise that they take their honor very seriously. When Wick shows up in Gianna’s bathroom instead of pleading for her life or trying to persuade Wick to turn on her brother (even though Wick seems to be looking for an excuse not kill her) she decides to slit her own wrists to maintain her honor. It seems extreme, but at the same time, perhaps it was the case that she never would have risen to such a high rank in the underworld without such a strong commitment to honor.
Once she passes out (but before she dies) Wick puts a bullet in her head, presumably so that his obligation to Santino is fulfilled. Again throughout the interaction there is a feeling of hopelessness and inevitability. While I said that Gianna chose to kill herself, it’s not entirely clear how much of that choice was voluntary. John Wick was sent to kill her. John Wick always kills who he sets out to kill. Her fate is sealed. His very presence there is proof of his unfaltering nature. He has risked his life to gain access to Gianna, someone he clearly has feelings for and does not want to kill, but the mere fact of his doing so demonstrates his intention to perform the task.
Given this circumstance, Gianna is really only faced with two options: allow John Wick to kill her, or kill herself. They seem to come to an unspoken compromise: Gianna allows John Wick to kill her, but she retains her honor by first guaranteeing her own death and taking some degree of control over the situation. One also can’t help but wonder if her affection for Wick is partly motivating her to spare him the pain of having to murder someone he is clearly fond of.
A More “Rational” Response Was Conceivable
The filmmakers could have chosen to make a movie where Santino attempts to force Wick’s hand by leveraging the medallion but Wick refuses to murder Gianna and instead leverages her aid to take down her brother. It could have had the same high quality action scenes and yet I believe it would have been less enjoyable. That’s because Wick would now be someone capable of free will; of deciding for himself between right and wrong. The movie would be about how those decisions get made and the nature of his moral character. We’d also need more information about his past so that the decisions that get made have an emotional impact. We’d need to know why we could make similar decisions were we to find ourselves in the characters shoes.
A “Force of Nature”
Instead the filmmakers chose to make Wick more like a sentient force of nature. Bound to obey the physical laws of its universe no matter the outcome, but cursed with the conscious awareness of its powerlessness. But as a conscious entity Wick is not free from the consequences of his actions. His body takes a huge amount of damage, an element that seems reminiscent of the story of Christ. Christian mythology holds that Christ was destined to be sacrificed, he knew it, but he still “allowed” himself to be tortured and crucified. Similarly John Wick knows that by following the rules that he will be tortured by constant attack and injury but he continues along the path set before him.
Human Beings: Rational?
More and more evidence is coming to light that we do not possess nearly the degree of free will we believe we do. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that even our political views are largely determined by the personality traits that we are born with and which change very little over the course of our lives. The vast majority of the decisions we make are unconscious and even our conscious decisions are built on top of countless unconscious events that precede it. Like Wick, we all journey through life obeying rules we believe must be obeyed but in truth need not be. Often we feel we are punished for doing so.
But we are also rewarded for this obedience
Those of us who live in stable and advanced economies believe that currency has value, and basing our life around that belief can enable us to live very prosperous lives. It can also imprison us inside soul-crushing and even physically harmful occupations. I don’t know if John Wick 1 & 2 provide us with any answers. They are, after all, just action movies. But I believe they resonate because on some level we recognize that we are all John Wick, motivated through life by hazy memories and an infinitely complex network of natural and human laws (which are often difficult for us to parse) our obedience to which condemn us to some level of punishment and reward, determined by forces beyond our control.
Thank you for reading.
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