There are gifs of violence in this. Just letting you know.
I am often accused of being a curmudgeonly individual who doesn’t like anything. I submit that this simply isn’t true: for instance, I love 2014’s deceptive art-as-action-movie John Wick.
I know what you’re thinking. “Art-as-action-movie? How so?” Well, the symbolism, of course. John Wick is an action movie drenched in symbolism.
Let us take, for example, the gold coins.
One of those props that ended up confusing some audience members or being dismissed as a joke, this is actually probably the kludgiest and most obvious piece of symbolism in the movie. I’ll give you a hint: to stay at The Continental, a hotel filled with assassins (and other criminals?), John trades one of the coins to the hotel manager. This character’s name is never spoken but the credits call him Charon.
Yes, these gold coins are in reference to those gold coins, the ones you trade to Charon to travel into the land of the dead. This is a reinforcement of an earlier scene in which John calls Charlie to get rid of twelve dead bodies and pays one gold coin for each of the bodies taken from his home.
So that one is pretty on the nose and easy to read.
How about color in John Wick?
The use of color in John Wick is very deliberate. John himself is generally presented in greens or blues, Viggo and other characters drawing John back in to the assassin life are presented in reds, and characters who represent the hope of John’s escape from that life (Helen, Daisy, and Marcus) generally have gold color schemes. (Helen’s gold bracelet, Daisy’s gold tag, and everything about Marcus’s clothes, lighting, and home decor.)
Even when Marcus isn’t wearing gold, he’s lit in gold light.
You know who else is symbolized with a piece of gold?
And Daisy wasn’t the only one who wore gold.
As for the interplay between John’s blue and Viggo’s red, I feel this is exemplified in the scene at the aptly named Red Circle.
So, the Red Circle is a turning point for John, and the lighting tells a key part of the story that I think is super interesting. First of all, the Red Circle does not go well for John in the end. It is Viggo’s trap, and John is walking into it.
Much of the lighting in the Red Circle is blue, and when John is in control of the fight, the light stays in blue palette.
As John maintains control of the fight, Viggo’s henchmen move from red light
into blue light
and in their death, John sinks with their bodies further into the red light.
As Iosef suddenly knows fear of John and begins to run for his life, we see the palette go distinctly blue on the club floor.
Then, as Iosef escapes, John moves into the VIP Lounge, which is lit in white and guarded with men in red shirts.
As the fight slips out of John’s control, he moves back into the club area where he fights men in white shirts. Guess what the lighting is doing, though.
Pretty neat, right?
Okay, one more: Cars in John Wick and what they symbolize.
So you know the movie starts with John’s car being stolen and his puppy being killed. But did you notice what cars meant specifically to the various characters agency?
See, early on, John expresses his rage by driving in circles on an airstrip. Then, after his car is taken and Daisy is killed, John reaches the conclusion that he should seek revenge for this.
So before he even changes out of his bloody shirt, he takes the bus to Aurelio’s to find out who has taken his car, expresses that he needs a ride (specific wording), and then returns home to literally dig up his past
He can’t act without a car first.
We also see twice in the movie that John is gifted cars as his agency returns to him: once at Aurelio’s and again from The Continental after Iosef’s death.
The second-to-last fight, also, is the culmination of John’s rage and grief. How is this expressed? The car becomes an extension of his body in the fight, with him pulling tight slides to literally punch people to death with his window.
What if I told you that the only time Iosef drives himself, the one time Iosef is in charge of his own destiny, is when he steals John’s car and drives it to Aurelio’s? After that, Iosef is always shown being driven places, as though he has no control over his own fate or remaining agency, as though what is happening to him has been decided. The same can be said for Viggo, who only drives himself once near the climax of the film, when he drives John’s car off the cliff to take control of the nature of his death after being a passenger to fear for so long.
In Iosef’s final moments, by the bye? John blows up three cars, taking away his remaining agency and protection, then kills him.
The movie also opens with John’s car crashing and him stumbling out, near death, and passing out on the pavement. The movie ends however, with John walking home along the same waterfront Helen collapsed on.
Pretty wild, right?
John Wick is a masterclass in visual storytelling and effectively uses both objects and color palettes to enhance their narrative and identify their unique characters. It is a flawless action movie that avoids shaky-cam and instead goes for wide shots to give the audience a solid spatial relationship to the sets. As an art film, it is an excellent one that creatively uses the tropes of action movies on sets filled with character to introduce fully-realized people reacting to their own tragic destinies.
“We are cursed, you and I,” Viggo tells John, and John replies, “on that, we agree.”
What an excellent debut from directors Stahelski and Leitch.
Kiva Bay is an artist, writer, and nerd. You can tip her here.