‘John Wick’ and the Honor Code That Keeps Its Sequels From Getting Stale
By Ross McIndoe
Spoilers for the John Wick series to follow.
The assassins of John Wick work within a secret society that extends around the world, complete with a mysterious, multi-tiered government, and even its own currency.
The gold coins which these contract killers use to pay for everything have been warmly ridiculed by fans since the first movie, largely thanks to how impossible it is to glean any sense of their monetary value. A round of drinks, a hotel room, a bulletproof suit, and an arsenal fit for taking on the assembled goons of a mafia princess each somehow cost just one coin. It would be easy to dismiss the paradox of a coin without discernible value as merely lazy world-building. But it actually speaks right to the heart of what the John Wick films have always been about.
It’s the sort of fun, silly detail that movie fans love to pick at. The Ringer wrote a perplexed piece exploring the mysteries of the coin, while Forbes actually tried to establish its real-world monetary value (Apparently between $2000 and $3000 as of 2017, assuming that they are solid gold).
By its third installment, the John Wick franchise has shown a cunning awareness of the jokes fans have been making. The ridiculousness of its original premise — John Wick (Keanu Reeves) undertakes a murder spree to avenge the death of his dog — is jibed at a couple of times in Parabellum, while little details like John’s propensity for getting hit by cars become running jokes. In the same way, it takes all those glib observations about its in-world currency and upends them completely.
To recap quickly, Parabellum begins with John, having been declared persona non grata in the assassin world, running for his life, as the hefty bounty on his head attracts an endless horde of contract killers. He heads to Casablanca, where he cashes in an old friend’s (Sofia, played by Halle Berry) marker (like an IOU between assassins, guaranteeing a future favor) for a meeting with her boss, Berrada (Jerome Flynn), in hopes of finding a way to clear his name.
On the way to Berrada’s lair, we see the molten gold which will be used to craft the mysterious currency, and Berrada offers the following explanation of their value:
“This coin of course, it does not represent monetary value, it represents the commerce of relationships, a social contract in which you agree to partake. Order and rules.”
It would be perfectly possible to read this as nothing more than some action movie pseudo-philosophy, a cool line designed to hand wave away any further jibes about the coins. But there’s more to it.
The coin does not possess a value relative to other material goods. Its value is symbolic: an acknowledgement of service rendered, of our duty to one another.
In offering an explanation for the coins that refuses to give them a literal, numerical value, it takes what seemed like a cool-looking but nonsensical element of its mythology and imbues it with surprising depth. This trick is key to the continued success of a franchise which could have just been a by-the-numbers vengeance flick: It has built a world which defies literal interpretation while being steeped in symbolic meaning.
In the beginning of the franchise, Russian gangster Iosef (Alfie Allen) breaks into John’s home, beats him, kills his dog, and steals his car. He had initially tried to buy John’s car, making clear he was willing to pay far more than its “worth,” and was confounded and enraged when told it was not for sale. Iosef’s mistake is that he could not understand the concept of value in terms other than cold, hard cash.
Sure, the car would have a market value based on its condition, model, rarity, and so on. This price would be an objective evaluation of it as an object, but those numbers mean nothing to John — for him, it is imbued with feelings and associations, a vital method of catharsis for a man beset with a deep well of pain.
After Iosef attacks him, you could work out the cost of replacing what he takes from John — his pet dog — ought to be, throw in an “appropriate” amount for the physical pain and emotional distress caused, and devise a reasonable settlement. In the eyes of Iosef, and those like him, he and John would then be even. A value subtracted, and then replaced. All would be equal, without John murdering a couple dozen gangsters.
But such sums can’t account for the uncountable: for the value of a beloved companion in John’s abruptly empty life, for the final act of compassion by a dying lover, and for the relief provided by having something to care for.
John’s quest for revenge will not objectively “make sense” in that he will not profit from it, and in fact, stands to lose even more by squaring off with an entire crime syndicate. But it makes a symbolic sense because it proceeds from a clear principle: A wrong has been done and the wrong-doer must suffer.
The coins similarly make a sort of symbolic sense, even as they defy a literal-minded interpretation of them as currency. The same is true of John’s initial revenge mission, and the same is true of the entire world to which John Wick introduces us.
The first movie sees John returning to the underworld, a world he had previously left behind in order to live peacefully with his now-deceased wife. As he re-introduces himself to its various players, we, too, are introduced to it, its rules, and customs. But, because Wick is no newbie and has no wide-eyed sidekick character who has to have things explained to them, we are given only the broad outline of how the assassins’ realm operates.
Everything is mentioned to John on the understanding that he will understand, details never have to be provided.
We learn that The Continental is the hitman’s hotel where contract killers talk shop over gin and tonics in the knowledge that they are safe from one another — no business can be done on continental grounds.
In the second film, we learn that The Continental has branches around the world. We also find out about the IOU-like markers, and we get a glimpse of how the whole hidden economy of the death market is run, with scenes of tattooed administrators wiring messages across to change bounties and issue “excommunicado” orders (banning the affected party from the privileges and protections which The Continental provides, as happens to John in the third film).
We also hear about the High Table, which appears to act as the governing body of it all.
There is a mystique to all of these things, an archaic and heavily ritualized feeling that imbues them with a sense of weight while helping to occlude them. We understand the effects of each aspect of Wick’s world, even if we don’t know how it came to be or precisely how it works.
The genius of the John Wick franchise is that it expands and deepens its world whilst holding the viewer at arm’s length. It doesn’t explain away its own mystique. This is a highly tempting trap to fall into in the age of IP, when the market seems to demand that every tiny detail of a story be delved into through prequels, sequels, and spin-offs.
The Star Wars series, for example, relies on the assumption that a film about how Han Solo meets Chewbacca serves a purpose because it fills in a narrative blank. Such an approach discounts entirely the possibility that their past is far better conveyed through the relationship they share in the chapters we have seen, rather than by being spelled out piece by piece for the audience.
In contrast, the John Wick series provides a world of symbols and signifiers which are not meant to be functionally deconstructed. Doing so not only allows the series to avoid becoming too bogged down in minutiae as the accumulated hours roll on, but also provides the perfect means for it to approach its central ideas.
Each John Wick coin has a phrase inscribed upon it, “Ens Causa Sui,” meaning “something generated within itself.” This is a vital concept in understanding John Wick’s world: value as something integral, existing in and of itself, not the product of relative worth.
A dog has a price which can be measured on the market. John’s dog has value that can never be recovered.
The initial premise was open to ridicule because it seemed at once so thin and so extreme: the prototypical revenge plot, dialed up to eleven. And if it is examined from a pragmatic viewpoint, it still reads that way: one man waging war on a crime syndicate to avenge his pup is totally insane.
But the hidden depths of the series lie in the fact that it is always more concerned with ritual and symbolism than it is with realism. This quality allows it to expand its world up to the High Table, down to the Bowery King, and out across continents, all without ever offering any sense of how the assassins’ world really works.
In the age of endless prequels, sequels, and spin-offs that fill in every corner of a fictional mythology, John Wick bucks the trend and sidesteps the resultant fatigue by remaining purposefully opaque.