The John Wick films are among those “people’s films” beloved by the multitudes. In the weeks leading up to the premiere of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, you could find instant solidarity with tired workers in the elevator and harassed grocery store checkers and the melancholy guy who comes to fix the dryer, just by mentioning that you were looking forward to seeing John Wick 3. It was wonderful to see the faces light up in eager response: “Oh yeah, John Wick! I’ll be there first day — already bought my tickets.”
The first film was directed by relative unknowns, Chad Stahelski and (uncredited) David Leitch, who started out as stunt coordinators and second unit directors on various, generally lowly, action films. “We’d be on like the fourth sequel, or maybe the sixth,” they told the adoring hosts at Honest Movie Trailers. Even with star Keanu Reeves on board, whom they knew from working on The Matrix films (Stahelski was Reeves’s stunt double), John Wick had to be done on a tight budget. Stunt men playing goons shot by John Wick in the first film had to jump up as soon as they were out of camera frame to run around and attack him again, in order to make a small cast of killers look big.
For those who can’t understand why so many people like action films that are all about killing — and John Wick is definitely all about killing — it can be enlightening to consider these movies. They provide all the fantastical escapism you crave after working your dreary job, or jobs, all week, or suffering from needing a job and not having one, and they find a way to connect the fantastical elements of the film’s “world building” to a common core of shared reality. That shared reality between you and John Wick is getting fucked over by people rotten with power in a dirty system that come at you aggressively when you’re just trying to get by in your life, which is already pretty miserable. What little you have, they take from you.
The famous premise of John Wick 1 is this: he’s a retired assassin who gave up the killing life for his beloved wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan). She just died of cancer, and arranged to have a posthumous gift delivered to him after the funeral — an adorable Beagle puppy named Daisy.
Well, a gangster’s son (Alfie Allen) and his thug friends break into the bereaved John Wick’s house and kill John Wick’s puppy. They also steal his car, a vintage Mustang, but that’s a side issue. Killing a puppy is such an extreme taboo that Stahelski and Leitch claim they had to justify it to production company heads who questioned whether the viewing public would stand for it.
Of course, as terrible as it is to watch — and we don’t see the actual unspeakable deed, just the aftermath, which is bad enough — it’s an extremely effective premise in an action film. Thereafter, anything John Wick does to these people is justified. He can’t kill them brutally enough to suit the audience. The decks have been cleared for mayhem.
It’s an instantly iconic moment in the genre when John Wick goes down to his cellar, takes a sledgehammer, and breaks through the concrete he’d poured over his weapons stash when he gave up his old way of life as a top — as the top — assassin. This is the “you messed with the wrong dude” fantasy angle beloved of all action film fans (see Die Hard, Under Siege, Taken, Kung Fu Hustle, and many other classics of both the American and Hong Kong/Chinese tradition). As with so many aspects of genre films, you can recognize its appeal by the way it provides a vicarious experience of what can’t be gotten in real life. The vast majority of us in America feel profoundly alone and forced to rely on our own resources when we’re wronged, not really expecting we could ever get justice through a system aligned against us. And though we can’t kid ourselves we are anything close to the dude you should never mess with, we can still watch the movies and cheer on John Wick.
The John Wick filmmakers aren’t shy about providing us with many more lavish fantasy-fulfilling movie elements as we move through the series. They seem to be working directly for us — we, the people — in trying to come up with more and more crowd-pleasing effects, and we appreciate their efforts on our behalf. It seems less phony than usual when production company executives pay tribute to this factor in the success of the John Wick films:
John Drake, the co-chair of Lionsgate’s motion picture group [on] why he believes the franchise has been such a success[:] “I really think that it is both Keanu and Chad’s pure love of the audience,” said Drake. “They make movies for the audience and they are determined to thrill and wow and invent things that you’ve never seen before and when you love the audience so much and you deliver for them, they show up.”
Needless to say, this means greater and greater achievements in inventive fight scenes, no small task at this point in cinema history after generations of the best and brightest minds in fight choreography have given their all. But John Wick 3 delivers, especially in a series of scenes I’ll simply call Library Fight, Weapons Shop Fight, Dog Fu Fight, and the unprecedented and brilliant Stable Fight with Horse Fu.
But “delivering” means more than just the required fight scenes. The narrative from John Wick 1 to 3 keeps opening up into larger worlds occupied by international assassins, who hide in plain sight all around us. For example, the Continental Hotel in New York City is where all the assassins go to rest up and make plans and talk with their fellow assassins. They’re not allowed to do any practical business there, i.e., no killing on the premises, a rule that gets John Wick into a lot of trouble at the end of John Wick 2.
The hotel is a perfect hotel, dark and luxurious, exquisitely run. It’s presided over by a quietly scary owner with the alias Winston Churchill (Ian McShane) and his impeccable concierge Charon (Lance Reddick). Both are impassive, courteous, steeped in worldly knowledge, and incapable of surprise. They understand everything at a glance. In the hotel, and among assassins around the world, you use your special assassins’ currency, big elaborate gold coins. You silently present one to get basically anything in the assassins’ world — a room, a meal, a brace of weapons. There are no exact pricing systems. “You don’t get change,” says director Stahelski scornfully.
So you can go down the list of things that are at some level profoundly desired but never acquired by most ordinary people:
- Revenge on those who wronged you.
- Exquisite courtesy in the way people treat you, which allows you to respond in kind.
- An elevated life in which everything is ordered and precise and runs beautifully. Even the vocabulary is elevated — for example, assassins no longer in good standing are decreed “excommunicado.”
- A sense of belonging and profound understanding within a group, so that a look or a nod is sufficient to communicate complex meanings.
- A system of currency exchange which is not humiliating, in which you can’t be “nickeled and dimed” in a way that rates you as inferior to anyone else, because it functions more like a membership card — you just show it, and you get the goods and services you need.
In real life, in order to be treated very courteously in America, you have to have a lot of money. I’ve had this experience once. Through a mad real estate fluke in the Bay Area, my husband’s parents’ house, an ordinary house that was bought on a plasterer’s salary back in the early 1960s for $17K, sold for almost a million dollars. This entirely unexpected inheritance was divvied up among a few survivors. Then we took our precious share to the bank. Never in our lives again will we experience such soothing politeness, such anxiety for our comfort, such eagerness to serve us.
John Wick 3 begins immediately where John Wick 2 left off, with John Wick “excommunicado” for killing someone on the premises of the Continental Hotel simply because the guy had to be killed and refused ever to leave the hotel. The vicious gangster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), see, had forced Wick to honor a marker and assassinate D’Antonio’s sister in order to take her seat at the “High Table,” a kind of all-powerful executive body of crime lords. Then he betrayed Wick, and tried to have him killed. This enmeshed Wick in a world of further trouble and continued to push back to infinity the day when Wick could retire with his new dog, a pit bull he rescued from a kill shelter and named Dog.
Once he’s excommunicado, Wick is at the mercy of every wannabe top assassin in the world and begins his mad dash for sanctuary anywhere. This means calling in markers himself. Markers, imprinted with the bloody thumbprints of those who gave them, have to be honored in the assassins’ world of John Wick, and John Wick 3 features those as well as other tokens signifying eternal pledges. One is a gigantic crucifix handed over to a ferocious Russian Roma ballet company mistress and crime lord known as The Director (Anjelica Huston), who must offer him aid in return. She was involved somehow in the raising and training of John Wick, and her motto indicates that it was no walk in the park: “As we know, art is pain and life is suffering.”
John Wick 3 features a significant number of times people in the assassins’ world must make a formal pledge of fealty to boss-figures, saying “I will serve, I will be of service.” It’s a clunky line, but we get the idea. This pledge is given under ever greater duress, as the egregiously bad rule of the High Table gets abusive enough to foment the rebellion against it which will clearly be Topic A in John Wick 4.
We’ll all watch the hell out of that movie too, because who amongst us hasn’t had to make a series of sickening pledges under duress? We’re trained up in forced pledges in childhood with “the Pledge of Allegiance,” and this is followed in adulthood by further outrages called things like “the second interview,” and “the employment contract.”
John Wick 3 also features more dogs, which were a big part of its advertising. After the death of Daisy, we want to be assured dogs will live and prosper while participating in the action of all sequels to John Wick 1. Hence Dog the pit bull of Part 2 is joined by two Belgian Malinois in Part 3. We all followed breathlessly the tale of how Halle Berry helped train the dogs owned by her badass character in the film. They’re central to a major fight scene in which one of the dogs repeats Rin Tin Tin’s old silent film stunt of scaling a twelve-foot wall, as surefire a thrill as cinema ever produced.
Now we can sum up a few more fantasy elements that work as compensation for what we are denied:
- Recognition of our suffering. Well, Bernie Sanders recognizes it, but otherwise the working class can’t get no public respect. In fact, we live in a shitstorm of insults from those in power.
- Meaning in our lives: in action films, this tends to take the form of celebrating honor culture, in which people recognize the importance of living by a code of strongly held principles that include pledges and the consequences of failing or betraying them. (“Consequences” is a repeated, solemn word in John Wick 3.) Of course it’s what we might call “problematic,” this longing for honor culture, but it’s a huge feature in most action films and must be reckoned with. Honor culture tends to be quite brutal and regressive. But at least it’s a brutality of a different kind than the malevolent meanness that rules our lives in contemporary Western culture. Honor culture provides heightened meaning along with the harshness, and meaning is the factor we crave. If we must suffer and die, we can’t help wanting to do it in a system of meaning recognized by all.
- Dogs as comrades: this is a tricky one, because of course many of us have dogs, setting the example of total loyalty and bravery that we admire and fail to achieve ourselves. But we don’t have dogs that are honored as comrades in the wider world. John Wick can send Dog to the Continental Hotel alone in a cab, for example, with perfect confidence that the Concierge will check him in and get him settled in a nice room.
Finally, we need a star to represent us in some believable way. Here we must pay tribute to the figure at the center of the John Wick universe, Keanu Reeves. He’s a beloved “people’s star” for a reason, on a first name basis with us all as just “Keanu.” It figures that he’s the star who would make his little-known former stuntman’s movie on a tight budget, as the reports of his strange and unusual decency are legion. We are fond of his always slightly stunned expression, and his dazed voice, which fits our bizarre times like a glove.
It became a useful part of his stardom early on that he was regarded as both up for anything — he did Hamlet on stage — and often not a very good actor. While top directors kept hiring him for demanding parts, we watched him stumble through them looking handsome and goofy and lovable, and gave him a pass. Soon enough he’d always find a role proper for him that would once again unleash his star qualities. The Matrix probably offered him his perfect role as the clueless working-class guy who turns out to be “the One” and gets to say with pleased awe, “I know kung fu!”
I saw him once in Los Angeles, at a place called Victor’s (now closed), a rundown bar/restaurant once popular among hungover stars attempting to choke down breakfast. The place that morning was almost deserted, yet word raced around the small mini-plaza where Victor’s was situated and soon everyone in it would be finding an excuse to cross the parking lot and get a covert look at Keanu. He handled this very gracefully by convincingly pretending not to notice, and an unusual contest of politeness began, with everyone taking his cue and pretending to ignore his stardom. Keanu prides himself on being able to go to the grocery store and other public places, unlike some stars who can’t handle the mad concentrated stares of fandom.
In John Wick 3, there’s a meta-gag when John Wick begins to encounter fellow assassins trying to kill him who are “big fans” of his. Keanu plays these scenes for laughs by letting us see the barely repressed impatience with this that, it seems, he never displays in real life.
He showed up at Victor’s wearing a version of his later John Wick outfit — black suit, but with a white instead of a black shirt — suggesting that his iconic John Wick costume is based on his ordinary civilian-wear. He was tall, which is unusual for a movie actor, and otherwise looked exactly like himself, i.e., too handsome for ordinary life. He was there to meet a woman working on behalf of some children’s cause, seeking his support. Before talking to her earnestly for an hour in a way that suggested he was going to provide that support, he asked the waitress very politely if the bar was open yet.
It wasn’t, because it was 8:30 AM.