B6B: RETRO DEEP SIX DIVE: John Wick (2014)

By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – May 23, 2019)

Somehow, it’s been over five years since the world first visited the Continental Hotel and was introduced to a universe that changed how we view what’s possible in a gritty action franchise. On the surface, John Wick was simple, by-the-book, and straightforward in its approach and in its story. In the years since it hit theaters, we’ve learned much more about Derek Kolstad’s universe, most likely in ways he never expected to be able to tell. John Wick isn’t something that seemed destined for legitimate success, but it’s become one of the more lucrative “cult” hits of the decade and has spawned two powerhouse sequels and a third to come in 2021.

Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, and Kolstad collaborated on a 20 million dollar budget, brought on a decent cast with recognizable names (though only Keanu Reeves really hit the level of a one-time A-list performer), and made 88 million worldwide. By the way, that’s not to say the film didn’t bring stars and talented people along for the ride, but if Reeves didn’t hit the right notes with the title character, there is no Chapter 2, no Parabellum, and no fourth installment green lit for a few years down the road. I’m not here to review John Wick in terms of whether it’s good or not, but instead am choosing to reflect in some level of detail on a franchise that, as brutal and dark as it is, has a subtle charm, its own sense of moral code, and depth to the proceedings.

Considering John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, just supplanted Avengers: Endgame at the box office, making over 50 million domestically, grossly outperforming the moderate hopes of 35-40M Stahelski and the production company were expecting, it seems we all want more of this franchise, and so why not deep dive into it and give you some content to accompany the new release. Incidentally, my spoiler-free review of the third movie is available right here.

John Wick starts out with a shot of the present that then leads to a, “How the heck did he end up falling out of an SUV barely alive?” We find out relatively quickly, and in order to do it, we have to see what makes this man tick. The answer, as it is for many, is his wife, who unfortunately passed away due to some kind of terminal illness. It isn’t ever named specifically, but we see her collapse into his arms on the bridge after a few flashbacks to their happiness. What we find out is he’s a professional assassin, retired, out of the life, because Helen gave him something else, something positive in which to channel his passion and emotion.

His wife isn’t murdered, but the next closest thing to her is, right in front of him, as the Russians from the gas station end up breaking into his home to steal his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 and then kill the beagle she sent him as a gift to help soften the blow of her death. Two things here: First, that dog is awesome, and I was ready to see Wick shoot a lot of dudes in the face after they kill the pup. Second, I was screaming out loud to the three heathens to leave it alone, let the man go in peace with his car and the canine.

Nope, they had to show up and attack him, not knowing who he was, which is a good thing in effect, because as a result of their stupidity, we got to know the REAL John Wick, the one Viggo Tarasov (the awesome Michael Nyqvist crushes this role) describes not as the “Boogeyman,” but as the guy you hire to go kill the Boogeyman. That’s an awesome piece of imagery that’s impossible to miss. The short and skinny here is this man is deadly dangerous, basically the grim reaper, and everybody in the sheer vicinity of his orbit is marked for a tombstone.

One thing occurred to me during the rewatch this week, namely that in some respects, John Wick is sort of a cross between a modern-day fable and something Homer would have written, had he also dug Marilyn Manson and John Woo. Wick is on a quest in the first movie to avenge the death of Daisy and to repay what was done to him mere days after his wife died in a hospital bed. Who among us could fail to root for him, even with what we’ll learn about him? He’s not a hero, but he’s the perfect antihero for the time, in that while he does some heinous things, there’s a method behind the madness. We can understand, within the construct of Derek Kolstad’s world, why all these folks need a toe tag.

John Wick, from the first through Parabellum, doesn’t engage in random murder of innocents. Instead, in the case of the original, it’s a major Russian crime syndicate operating in New York City. We don’t weep for Iosef, a brash, arrogant, born on third base useless rich idiot, son of Viggo, who doesn’t know life can hurt him and choices have consequences. Incidentally, Alfie Allen is just as effective here as he ever was as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, which is pretty high praise. He plays Iosef as the very embodiment of millennial self-entitlement. Ignorance doesn’t abdicate responsibility, and the sheer callousness and pride of Iosef makes him an ideal villain.

Wick knows he can trust almost nobody, so once we meet Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), I immediately expected her to go after the multimillion dollar contract Viggo places on John to try and keep his son alive. It was surprising that Marcus (Willem Dafoe) actually remained a friend, even after accepting the contract, and instead continually saved Wick from afar. The two were legitimate friends as assassins, with the experienced Marcus being both father figure and mentor for the younger John Wick, a relationship which stayed true until Viggo had Marcus killed in the final minutes.

Again, the point to keep in mind here is that Wick absolutely has a moral code and does have some level of loyalty, even in a business where, as we know, there is virtually no honor that can’t be bought. “Everything has a price” is a refrain we hear more than once within the movie.

I could comment on the action, but if you’re reading this, I have to imagine you’ve already seen at least one of the movies. The original is far tamer on this front than the two sequels, more basic and with less of the choreography and visual set pieces we’ve come to love in Chapters 2 and 3. That’s not abnormal, but I found myself enjoying the original more this time than the first occasion I watched it, because I saw an origin story of sorts, one that reminded me of the stakes and of what brought John Wick out of retirement. There’s a foundation here, where Kolstad’s characters and Stahelski and Leitch gradually introduced us to what was to come.

Wick has gotten more and more complex, but the original film threw just enough at us to intrigue us without overwhelming us, and there’s a definite balance there that could have gone awry. At no point did I think I was watching something overly convoluted or overwrought. Instead, the 2014 movie put me in a car going just above the speed limit, and though by the end we were driving 90 in that Mustang, it wasn’t in two seconds. Now, I’m ready to hop in and go 120, because Wick nails the most important part of its inception…

…the first impression.

So many movies miss the mark by not clearly defining the motivations of the player or players we care about. We know why Wick does what he does and we understand you don’t do business on Continental property because we hear Winston (Ian McShane) lay out the rule in words. It’s the same difference, and holds the same effect, as “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.” There’s something to be said for a reaction of, “Okay, got it. I understand this.”

We know Lance Reddick’s character at the front desk, Charon, can be trusted as a loyal employee and concierge. Also, that name! Charon required one gold coin to ferry souls in Hades across the river Styx. Don’t think for a moment that’s accidental, nor is the currency used in these films. And, we may not have recognized how important Reddick would be to the franchise, but we’d learn. I still, every single time I see him, think to myself, “Dunham.” (Fringe reference. Somebody out there got it.)

We also know Wick likes killing people in respectable dark suits, which still leaves me wondering about his range of motion. That said, based on the results, he seems to know what he’s doing, so maybe I’ve been wrong thinking warm-up pants might be better for murder. It definitely adds an effect of a grim reaper to Wick’s appearance, which fits the bill beautifully.

Another thing that struck me about John Wick this time around was the quick nature of the action and the death. These weren’t, with very few exceptions, long moments of torture. Even when Wick got to Iosef for the final time, Alfie Allen couldn’t get a single sentence out before he had a bullet in his head. It manages to be the king of body count franchises without ever seeming to glorify the violence itself. It’s always a means to an end, sometimes for survival (most times as a matter of fact), and sometimes for revenge. There’s a purpose behind all the knives and guns and pencils and books and everything else. That, in itself, is laudable, because it allows the fiction to rise above the level of an effects show with no substance.

Far more language in the original than in Parabellum in particular, which tells me the writers have grown more confident in what they’re doing, Stahelski’s direction has taken center-stage, and less lazy words are necessary to connote emotion than in the past. That’s welcomed, although it’s not a movie serious that’s ever been overly egregious in that regard.

We end the first movie with Marcus dead, Perkins dead, and John Wick alive. We also end up with Wick not alone in his days and nights anymore, taking a pit bull puppy from a kill shelter after tending to his wounds after hours at a veterinary clinic. So, not only does Wick prevail, finishing off Viggo after a hellacious climax of gunfire and car accidents, he walks into the night with a new dog, replacing Helen’s beagle. That dog has been with us ever since, and the symbolism of man’s best friend replacing the woman he knew as his best friend isn’t to be lost.

As much as he loved his car, the dog is what made him return to his old ways, because Helen drove him, changed him, made him realize what life had to offer, and once she was taken, the dog had given him a chance to grieve and grow privately. Days later, it’s bludgeoned to death, and at that moment, there’s hell to pay for the Boogeyman. As we fade to black, we know we’ve just seen something outstandingly entertaining, brutal, dark, and maybe most importantly, we’ve seen something special.

There’s no doubt after watching it the first time why John Wick works. It works because Chad Stahelski, former stunt double for Reeves in The Matrix, knew what he wanted an action movie to look like and to feel like. He was a fan of anime, of spaghetti westerns, of John Woo, of hard boiled fiction, and of all things martial arts. Thus, we get close quarters combat mixed with gunplay, and it’s a feast for the senses. It also works because the story is easy to sink our collective teeth into, and it’s a quest movie with an ending that still allows for more. That’s been true of each of the three movies. They could all be the final time we see the character, but also might not be.

And, although a few sequences and deaths are always a little tough to watch, they’re supposed to be. We shouldn’t watch EVERY second of John Wick with a smile, because life is brutal and death even more so.

John Wick doesn’t celebrate death, and it’s about this man attempting unsuccessfully to escape his past once he loses his wife. It’s not a bleak depiction of reality and it isn’t designed to make us fear life. Instead, I take from Wick’s story how much I’ve been blessed with and why I shouldn’t ever take it for granted.

And yeah, who can’t get behind a world class champion assassin taking down a bunch of evil crime lords and scumbags along the way? Keanu Reeves was made to play this character, a man of few words who looks the part and doesn’t have to engage in long soliloquies to make his point. It’s become arguably his most iconic character, which is astonishing considering a few of the franchises he’s been part of in the past.

Next on the B6B, we go into Chapter 2, where the mythology GREATLY deepens and the franchise hooks us even more long term. That to come over the next few days…

I’m @JMartZone. It’s personal.