According to director Chad Stahelski, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) kills 84 people in the first film. 84 people. When put in perspective, that’s 83 more than Rambo in First Blood. 80 more than Freddy Krueger in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and 79 more than Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween. Hell, John Wick even puts Jason Voorhees to shame, killing 75 more people than Jason did in Friday the 13th Part 2 (his first proper appearance). With this staggering number of deaths and intense amount of blood drenched action sequences, it is no wonder that the film made waves while simultaneously garnering massive cross-genre appeal.
Spawning two subsequent sequels, two more currently in development and a television spin-off series, the franchise shares more than a few similarities to some of horror’s best. However, despite the excessive violence, John Wick quickly carved out a unique place as a truly sympathetic anti-hero in modern action cinema. But how? In celebration of March Break Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, let’s take an action detour to look at just how John Wick broke the mold of what it means to be an action character and how his broken heart balances out the broken bones and bloody bullets.
Good to See You John
When first introduced to John Wick in the cold open, he’s broken, bloody and clearly injured. Something bad has definitely occurred. Tired and physically weak, we see him watch a home video on his phone through the cracked and bloody screen. Clearly, this woman holds a special place in his heart and clearly, this was a better time. Unresolved and open-ended, the film quickly cuts to a prior day. As John wakes up alone in bed, he visits the bathroom, makes coffee and begins to start his day.
While the activities are normal, it quickly becomes apparent that something within the house is not. Scattered throughout the house, indicators of a this woman’s presence lie out in the open, untouched and unused. Before long it becomes revealed that this woman was John‘s wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). Having recently passed away, flashes of recall and fragmented memories fill in the narrative gaps. Ultimately, it is quietly revealed that it was John who made the difficult decision to remove Helen from life support.
“[…] John Wick even puts Jason Voorhees to shame, killing 75 more people than Jason did in Friday the 13th Part 2 […]“
After attending Helen‘s funeral and moving through the motions of the following reception, John receives one final gift from Helen. In a remarkably touching final act of love, Helen arranged for a puppy named Daisy to be delivered to John. Knowing her husband would inevitably struggle with losing her, Daisy was offered as an emotional bridge to help John cope and move on. This beautiful gift coupled with literal puppy dog eyes and a gut-wrenching handwritten note, John breaks down. Intimate, heartbreaking and completely understandable, this scene becomes the foundation that John Wick‘s successful execution is built upon. Before one bullet has been fired, before we even really know who John Wick is, it is tears that are being shed—not blood.
It is here in these moments that John Wick‘s writer Derek Kolstad demonstrates his true skill and passion for the character. Not only is this open display of emotion rather rare for male blockbuster action stars, it frames John in an interesting and important manner. Rather than introducing John at his best, we’ve been introduced to John at his worst. Numb, heartbroken and frequently living through photos and memories, John is deep in the throws of grief. Upon receiving Daisy, John continues to navigate the grieving process, but with a crucial added component—hope.
Even though John is a man of few words, Daisy begins to win him over with her innocence and purpose. Simply and subtly, his interactions with her signal a shift within him. More than just cute, this vulnerability and openness instantly endears John to audiences in powerful ways. By carefully and lovingly setting the table with the best emotional china, it makes the moment all the more tragic when it comes crashing to the ground.
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They Call Him ‘Baba Yaga’
Just as John was beginning to beginning to move on from his wife’s death, Daisy by his side, he shares a chance encounter with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). An entitled young brat, Iosef is the young son of a powerful father whose generational privilege makes him feel untouchable. After John embarrasses Iosef in front of his friends and turns down his offer to buy his 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429, Iosef decides to simply take it. Breaking into John‘s house at night, Iosef and his cohorts end up stealing John‘s car, busting up his wife’s former car and shockingly, killing baby Daisy in front of him. It is here in this dramatic turn of events that John‘s full story begins to take shape. Rather than catching John at the beginning of his story, we quickly learn that we are deep in the middle of it.
Following along with Iosef‘s ignorance to who John Wick is, the lore and mythology surrounding him becomes conveyed through character dialogue. In order to realize the full weight of what he has done, Iosef‘s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) enlightens him. Not just some regular guy, John Wick is in fact, the ultimate killing machine. More than just an assassin, John Wick was an assassin who got out. Leaving the world of murder and mayhem behind him for love, it was John who established Iosef‘s family prominence in exchange for his freedom. Just like the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga proper, John Wick is a powerful being that can both help and hurt those who cross his path. And after what Iosef did, you can bet he wasn’t out to help. Iosef didn’t just steal a man’s car and kill his dog mere days after he buried his sick wife. He stole John Wick‘s car. He killed John Wick‘s dog. By acting impulsively and irrationally, he has pulled John back into the very world he was trying to escape.
“Not only is this open display of emotion rather rare for male blockbuster action stars, it frames John in an interesting and important manner. Rather than introducing John at his best, we’ve been introduced to John at his worst.”
Despite the mythology surrounding John Wick feeling familiar, the way the events unfold allow the character to hit different. While it’s easy to draw comparisons to films like Death Wish, The Burning, Terror Train, Mad Max and any number of other vengeance based plots, it is rare for a character such as John to be so firmly rooted in emotion before retaliation begins. Before Iosef even entered the picture, John was already a man suffering a deep loss. Helen was already gone due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
Grief, depression, sadness and guilt were all real parts of John‘s character before his hope was so savagely ripped away as well. Rather than replacing or postponing the inevitable grief with aggression and rage (the more common revenge-action narrative), John Wick simply puts his grief on pause. Even though this distinction may seem rather small, it colors all of John‘s actions moving forward. By investing the time to set up John properly and imbuing true emotional depth to his character, the dozens of bodies that soon pile up in his wake are easily forgiven and rationalized.
Yeah, I’m Thinkin’ I’m Back
As John consciously decides to hunt down Iosef, we see him both literally and figuratively dig up his past. Donning a stylish black suit, weapon and slicked back hair, this uniform signifies to both John and viewer alike that he is indeed returning to work. Just as John‘s appearance provides insight into his headspace, so does his fighting style. Decisive, methodical and efficient, John eliminates men one by one. Assessing each threat individually, he approaches them with the same regard. Remaining focused, calm and determined at all times, the guns become secondary to quick thinking and well executed fighting technique. In this moment, not a shred of rage is present. There is no celebration once a kill is complete. Not only does this lack of emotion add a tense atmosphere to every fight John becomes engaged in, it also stands in stark contrast to many of his action star counterparts. In a genre saturated with cheesy one-liners, excessive overkill and clever tricks to distract from the violence our hero is unleashing on screen, John Wick stands apart in his bold stoicism.
When John returns to his old stomping grounds at The Continental hotel (the Hilton for assassins) for both information and lodging, his reputation precedes him. Like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, John is figure that garners whispers and respect in equal measure. Professional and considerate of the house rules, John further demonstrates his ability to compartmentalize and channel his anger. Never demanding help from anyone, those within John‘s fictional circle give it willingly regardless. As the sole member of their secret society that has ever gotten out of the business alive, the legend surrounding John is filled with as much danger as it is desirability. And because of this, everyone knows that if John is working again there must be a damn good reason.
“Just like the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga proper, John Wick is a powerful being that can both help and hurt those who cross his path.”
Further playing with and elaborating on this idea of professionalism, John tracks Iosef to a club called The Red Circle. Recognizing the bouncer, John acknowledges what he is there to do and let’s the man leave unharmed. Once inside, the scene is shot more like a horror movie than an action film. Creeping through the shadows like a sympathetic slasher John embodies ‘The Boogeyman’ nickname that has been unceremoniously bestowed upon him. Stealthily picking of villains one by one in an effort to get to Iosef, there’s nothing supernatural about John‘s skills in this moment.
However, he becomes all the more feared because of that. While his body count at The Red Circle is high, what is not high is the collateral damage. Despite dozens of club goers, employees and innocent bystanders flooding the scene, John doesn’t injure a single one of them. Although clearly a highly efficient killer, John never pulls the trigger recklessly. Standing as a direct counter to many big budget action films, everyone in John Wick‘s path ‘deserves’ their death in one way or another. Though never explicitly acknowledged, this fact only further rallies audiences to John‘s cause.
Everything Has A Price
It’s not until John becomes restrained (temporarily) by Viggo that John‘s buried emotions begin to make their presence known. Physically weakened and without the privilege of being motivated by greed, money or glory, John is finally forced to acknowledge what has been fueling this violent vendetta; guilt and hopelessness. Highly self-aware of the life he has led, John admits that he feels cursed and responsible for Helen‘s illness. While he seemingly has no problem taking life away from another person, the fact that he was forced to figuratively pull the plug on his own wife haunts him. Before Iosef, before the revenge, this fact was there. And while the death of Daisy and the loss of his car hurt, ultimately, it was the hope of recovery that Iosef stole that finally broke him. Though he remains remarkably calm throughout the film, this moment with Viggo unleashes the grief fueled rage simmering just beneath John‘s cool and composed exterior.
When the time finally comes for John to confront Iosef, the moment is satisfyingly short. True to character, John approaches the moment just like he does every kill; efficiently and decisively. John does not run to catch Iosef, he walks. He does not allow Ioself to plea for his life or make any sort of final statement. Nor does he take the opportunity to make a final, tough guy monologue. Consciously avoiding the tired trend that so many action films have embraced over the years, John simply walks up to Iosef and pulls the trigger. This brat who stole his chance at a normal grieving process doesn’t deserve any more time than that. And yet, just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather films, the web of Viggo and Iosef ensnared John in it’s own dark way. Ironically and tragically, this man who once gave John his freedom, inadvertently took it away from him as well.
“In a genre saturated with cheesy one-liners, excessive overkill and clever tricks to distract from the violence our hero is unleashing on screen, John Wick stands apart in his bold stoicism.”
Even though the beautiful cinematography, killer music, expertly coordinated action sequences, stunning sets and Keanu Reeves himself are more than enough to make John Wick a worthwhile watch, the true strength of the film lies in the character of John Wick. Deviating from traditional testosterone injected action star tropes, John is a central male figure that is allowed to not only navigate grief, but exhibit it. Breaking away from expected inciting incident tropes, the motivation behind John‘s bullet-riddled rampage comes from a much deeper, much more personal place.
Life is never as simple as a character arc infographic would lead one to believe, and John Wick demonstrates that. Sometimes, the tragedy precedes the inciting incident. Sometimes the transformational moment ironically starts the cycle all over again. This cascading wave of character development, experience and repeated fall from grace speaks volumes to why John Wick has resonated with audiences the way that he has. Like an unbroken soundwave peppered with bloody peaks and tragic valleys, John‘s story seamlessly flows from one film to the next. By taking the time to lay a proper emotional foundation early on, John Wick becomes a character that is fueled by something much deeper and a film that defies expectations. In the end, John Wick allows the question of whether or not the brutal violence, 84 deaths, broken bones and blood splattered walls can really be justified by one poor dead puppy to get answered with resounding ease. The answer is yes.
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