John Wick and Righting the Impossible Wrong (or Why I Love Revenge Movies)
The trailer for the third chapter of the John Wick series was released last week, and I can’t wait to see the film. In what I already know will be one of my favorite sequences, Keanu Reeves is on horseback being pursued by katana-wielding, motorcycling assassins. When an image from the scene was released a few months ago, I knew I was in, and the trailer got me in even deeper. The choice of music was unexpected, but apt: Frank Sinatra crooning about righting the impossible wrong. Isn’t that what revenge is? A response to a problem that can’t ever really be solved.
Before I really dive into this, can we agree to give Keanu Reeves his flowers while he’s still with us? The man has been thrillingly entertaining us since the 80s; he’s unproblematic, minds his own business, and is aging like fine wine. He’s a top-tier celebrity who gets overlooked because he isn’t showy and doesn’t feature in Oscar bait. He’s amazing at what he does and deserves every red penny he’s paid. The unexpected, scorching success of the John Wick franchise is a fitting tribute to him.
Back to it.
The John Wick films are incredibly violent. Headshots and blood spatter abound. I abhor violence in real life. I don’t even like it in much of my entertainment. Give it to me in a revenge story, though, and I’m fully on board, cheering on every gruesome kill. Perhaps it’s because I don’t believe in karma. I don’t believe there’s an unseen force in the universe setting things right and maintaining balance. I don’t believe there’s a hell. Evil people win every day. They live long lives. They amass fortunes. Don’t go fooling yourself that they’re tormented by guilt and beset by fraught relationships with their families. Plenty of them are happy. They’ll die happy. Most of them will never meet any consequences for the harm they cause. If they do, it won’t be because some nebulous force in the ether none of us can see intervened; it will be because someone rose up to challenge their power. I quite enjoy the fantasy of that person being a dark-souled assassin in a somber suit.
Vengeance isn’t justice. It’s too merciless. It serves no reparative function. It is about punishment. It is about inflicting harm. It is about destruction. It is fundamentally antisocial. Yet, we all relate to it on some level. We all feel the urge to mete it out. Perhaps not with the deadly efficiency of Mr. Wick, but some of that retributive violence lurks in all our hearts. We’ve all wanted to punch someone who insulted or bullied us, and some of us have. Most of us swallow the rage and keep forging onward through the humiliation. That perseverance takes a kind of strength. Possessing that strength doesn’t mean you don’t feel weak and impotent in the moments you’re trespassed against, though. A Wickian response is disproportionate to some of the mundane betrayals we’ve all had to suffer. Gunplay would be too extreme. An impeccably timed throat punch, though? Would that really be so bad?
There is an element of catharsis I feel when I watch John Wick cutting through his foes with precision. The fantasy is a safe place, where I can pretend his enemies are mine. I can also pretend I am him, that I have the strength of will it takes to exact my revenge. I can also pretend I have the skill set. That’s the thing about Wick and his counterparts in cinema that I think really attracts me to them: their ruthless competence. That’s the core of their identity — how good they are what they do. It’s what holds them together when things fall apart. They don’t flail around in anger and grief. They don’t collapse into ineptitude and powerlessness. They become focused and deadly. All their talents, training, and experience are set to the purpose of destroying the people who wronged them. I’m good at writing. I’m adept at digging up receipts. I’m also patient. I suppose if I put my mind to it, I could find a way to stitch up a mortal enemy with a vigilantly conducted investigation and carefully drafted documents presented to the right people. I might even take pride in the accomplishment. I don’t know if it would be half as viscerally satisfying as kneeing them in the solar plexus, though. The power of a Wickian response, isn’t the violence he brings, though. It’s the fear of knowing he’s coming, and the certainty that you can do nothing about it. All warfare is psychological.
The element of John Wick’s character I’d most like to have is his reputation. I wouldn’t want to have to do anything that would make me that feared, but if, like the name Dread Pirate Roberts, I could inherit the mantle, I’d strongly consider it. People believing John Wick is John Wick is what makes him John Wick. They can’t kill him, because they don’t really believe he’s killable. At least not by them. Perception is reality. What people think and feel drives their actions. Their emotions determine outcomes. Dominate their thoughts, and you can dominate their lives and very beings so much that they’ll let you destroy them in spite of them having the upper hand. Even in the withdrawn solitude of retirement, John Wick maintained this power.
Like Wick at the beginning of the franchise, I lead a quiet life (without the deadly assassin backstory, of course). I’m incredibly fortunate. I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime. There’s a reason the impetus driving the antihero in revenge films is always a violent transgression, very often a murder. It grants permission for the symphony of on-screen death that follows. It’s one thing to lose someone you love; it’s entirely another for them to be taken from you. I would imagine it makes you want to destroy the world.
One of the things I liked the most about the first John Wick film was its emotional intelligence. Wick has already lost what he loved most in the world when the film opens. His wife has just been buried after succumbing to a protracted illness when his home is invaded, his car stolen, and the puppy his wife gifted him posthumously is killed. For all its bloody violence, the film was able to parse out that it’s not really the anger or grief that drives all-consuming revenge. It’s the extinguishing of that last flicker of hope. Vengeance is the last refuge of someone who has lost everything worth living for. But even in this absolute darkness, there are things that give Wick’s spirit purchase. He doesn’t slip completely into the abyss, because he has loyalties; he has allies; he has a code. As he kills his way towards his true targets, he discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought he was.
For revenge films to work, I think we, the audience, have to believe there’s more at stake than the deaths of the villains and their henchmen. There has to be some hope that our hero will live on in some way afterwards. He can’t just be Death’s most proficient angel. Without some meaningful emotional arc, we’re watching a snuff film. That’s part of the reason I’m so interested to see where the third chapter of John Wick’s story takes us. His choices keep ratcheting up the stakes against him. I enjoy watching him have to navigate the conundrum of embracing his skill as a killer in service to escaping being a killer. It’s quite the catch-22. When he broke that sledgehammer out and excavated the arsenal buried under the concrete of the basement of his suburban home, there was no going back. That home was bombed to smithereens in chapter two. The John Wick who lived a happy married life there doesn’t exist anymore. Neither does the cold-blooded assassin. Not really. I’ll be watching, because I want to know where Wick ends up and who he decides to be when he gets there.