Everybody doesn’t like something, but, it seems, nobody doesn’t like the “John Wick” movie franchise. That’s certainly a point made by the total $500 million in box office sales the three films have made.
For action fans, gun enthusiasts, wannabe machos, even those who hate anything that goes bang in the night or day, the John Wick movies, all starring a 50-something Keanu Reeves and directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, offer a journey through a silky-night world full of preposterous storylines, improbable kung-fu fights and blazing shootouts. As amplified by the best of modern movie technology—computer-generated imagery which can literally make anything seem plausible—the movies offer a fever dream of grace under the pressure of gunfire, martial-arts assaults and vehicular demolition derbies.
Keanu Reeves, always reticent and seldom on the talk-show circuit, has mostly kept his silence on the gun issue but for one example, when he said that people who want to own a gun should be able to own a gun.
For the few out there who don’t know John Wick, he is the former No. 1 assassin for a Russian mafia gang; he is smooth, fast, deadly, earnest, acrobatic and now kind of old and sad. He shoots like Frank Hamer on amphetamines. Cross him and he deals in lead, friend. He also likes dogs. Portrayed by a dialed-way-down Reeves, he’s as cool as an icicle in August in his Pike Bishop black suits (albeit by Armani), his shaggy-dog beard and his disheveled Rasputin after-the-assassination-attempts hair. Whatever he lacks in diplomatic skills and savoir-faire, the guy has style.
In fact, the stylistics really are the movies. To begin with, they’re set in a mash-up of art direction gone ballistic, on sets that look left over from the “Indiana Jones” franchise, as well as “Blade Runner,” with a catalog of allusions to cinema history to keep pointy heads on their toes, and weird light sources everywhere—plus fog, rain, smoke and reflective sparkles. Within this matrix, the movies generate a vision in which everything shimmers and glows in immaculate focus, as curated by cinematographers and art directors who know how wool trousers should drape, how many roses go into what kind of vase, how to get the most shine out of polished mahogany or the glint of a Beretta 92 barrel and whether blood outflow should register as red, blue, indigo, violet or purple. The movies seem at times like slick-mag whiskey ads, only with guns, lots of guns.
To emphasize the fantasyland that is the true setting of the Wick series, the geniuses behind the stylized mayhem place him in something called the International Assassins’ Guild, which in turn is sanctioned and governed by the High Table. The what? The High Table, I said. I don’t know what it means, either, except that this universe—though evidently unpoliced—is therefore not random: It is a (provisionally) moral universe, governed by a set of nearly medieval rules. There’s a sense of the Order of the Knights Templar, which mandates and enforces sensible regulations on behavior. Many ranking members are only known by quasi-religious titles: “The Adjudicator” or “the Elder” or “the Director.”
The outfit has a hitman-only hotel in New York, where the various boys and girls may rusticate between outings. They pay for this privilege in the currency of the realm, which appears to be large coins of either gold or gold tinfoil-wrapped chocolate. If one deviates from protocol, retaliation is swift. There is to be no business conducted on hotel grounds, and indeed, in the first film when a female assassin, in a flight of hubris and ambition, organizes a hit on Wick, she is summarily executed in a fashion that resembles a ritual far more than a violent deed. The only things missing are the Gregorian chants and the liturgical candles.
The plots are ridiculous, and not very memorable. In the first movie, a setup for all that follows, two no-good sons of a Russian mafia family relocated to Long Island happen to run into the retired Wick in a gas station and take a liking to his automobile, a ’69 Mustang, clearly one of the coolest cars ever built (Steve McQueen will confirm). He refuses to sell, so they kill his dog.
Bad move, droogs. Wick is already riven with grief over the recent death (by cancer) of his wife. This stroke enables Reeves, not the most fluent of actors, to go through the proceedings with an air of existential melancholy, a sure winner with the chicks. Guys like the hurting warrior vibration, too.
Wick retaliates, one thing leads to another and soon he’s digging up his weapons from their concrete sarcophagus in the garage. The rest of the movie is mostly gun smoke and roses. Besides the high-production values, the formula is amped up by the appearance of upper-echelon performers to share face-time with Wick—Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane and even the guy who plays “Mayhem” in the Allstate commercials, Dean Winters. These people, it must be said, buy totally into the production and perform without irony, self-amusement or the sense that one sometimes discovers in prominent actors slumming in thrillers of being too good for the project.
I didn’t have much luck with the second movie—a little too over-the-top for anyone who considers himself reality based. It was more transparent than the first and felt like a step down in invention and fun. It did make $172 million worldwide, however. The third, just out last year, was a step up. With an even better grade of co-stars like Halle Berry and Anjelica Huston, it contrives to turn the whole Guild against Wick. It speeds along to a finale that recalls the funhouse gunfight in Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947). It has super kung fu tossed in among the bullet holes in the glass and the diamond-like shards all over the floor that such activity necessarily creates, all photographed in a kind of fluorescent glow.
So much fun. Yet a question must be asked: Is John Wick friend or foe? Do the films help or hurt the community that has embraced them so fervently?
A case can be made that the films are subversively damaging, at least to people hungry to be damaged; after all, they make guns cool, hip, stylish and desirable, which the antis loathe. They celebrate the violence unleashed with the use of guns and they portray without apology what every anti-gunner fears in his heart of hearts: firepower unleashed without mercy, concern or consequence. They are indeed fantasies, but they are capable of inducing (even more) fear among our haters as paradigms of gun culture unchecked, unrepentant and unpoliced. They portray a world that many have come to despise, rightly or wrongly, a world where speed, strength and guile rule and there’s neither time nor room for feelings. If that is the message, it is expressed in the favored mode of the cultural left, irony.
And yet there are ways, some of them nuanced, in which these three movies not only speak to us but for us.
One is certainly the gun-handling. This is something that most critics miss and that many viewers can’t articulate, but it nevertheless gives the films a connection with reality usually missing in Hollywood’s standard products. I interpret this as a gesture of respect, perhaps even communication, with the core audience. Even given that most of the shooting is mixed with crazed martial-arts bravura, it’s clear that the people behind the movies know a bit about shooting. It helps no end that Reeves is coached by Los Angeles gun guru Taran Butler and has acquired for-real skills, particularly at the three-gun discipline. (The final gunfight in “Chapter 3—Parabellum” seems to be conceived as the three-gun match to end all three-gun matches, along with its profusion of other references.)
Thus Wick, as well as the others, usually shoots two handed from a solid well-built isosceles, as per modern dictum. They both aim and reload—rare in Hollywood. Guns lock back when mags are depleted. Speed reloads happen in warp time. Most blessedly, there’s none of the incessant slide, pump or bolt-throwing that directors are so in love with. Slides are thrown but once through the reloading cycles. And though the guns are sometimes identified, they’re not fetishized—not lovingly photographed in close-up and flattering lighting from the most photogenic angle. Instead, they are treated matter-of-factly, like tools, which is how shooters see their firearms—not as mystical demons both awesome and fearful, as is common to the anti-gun crowd. Audiences might not notice this precisely, but they understand they are seeing something unusual. Gun people in particular respond to the reality within the dreamworld.
Just as importantly, the movies don’t arrive with the stench of nutcase hypocrisy that envelops so many. We’re not seeing beautiful but stupid people who make their livings in fantasy close-quarters combat manfully beating back the tears as they denounce the NRA after an exceedingly rare mass-shooting by someone who is not, and never has been, an NRA member and who bought his military-facsimile, semi-automatic rifle two days before the event. That kind of preening and moral grandeur may be good for career advancement in Hollywood, and it might find favor in an increasingly out-of-touch media, but it never plays well on the actual ground where actual people live.
Reeves, always reticent and seldom on the talk-show circuit, has mostly kept his silence on the gun issue but for one quote, when he said that people who want to own a gun should be able to own a gun. Neither the director Stahelski nor the writer of all three films, Derek Kolstad, seem to have taken a public position and seem willing to let their work speak for them. That discretion is admirable in our social-media-crazed atmosphere.
Third, they offer guns as not a guilty pleasure but simply a pleasure. Like the John Woo films of the 1970s (where the style certainly originated), these films exalt in a technique that views guns as props in what resemble dance numbers in their rhythm, energy and beauty. There is an absence of shame, disgust and self-hatred. (Why did Frank Bullitt in the great movie, “Bullitt,” throw orange juice against his image in the mirror, as if knotted in shame? After all, he’d just killed an extremely evil actor.) This attribute carries meaning: It suggests that the firearm is not some weird Satanic object, attractive to only the demented, but a part of a larger world of human existence—good, evil, ugliness and beauty. The gun, they seem to be saying, is untainted by neurotic meaning.
Which leads to the final point: These movies offer a platform for a lost pleasure of movie-going; that is, for the admiration, the celebration of the righteous hero of force. John Wick isn’t an official social hero—a war hero, or a heroic police officer or private citizen, rewarded by his community. He is an eternal secret to those about him, who see him only as a pleasant fellow who looks a little like a pigeon-toed Russian mystic. But in his world, he is righteous; he stands for stamina, smarts, commitment to duty and belief in a moral code. This used to be a commonplace thing in Hollywood, almost a national myth as embodied by no less than John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. That’s gone now for reasons many and complex; however, in the hearts of the many who still worship the old gods, Wick is justice come for breakfast.
Stephen Hunter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. His latest book is Game of Snipers, the 11th installment of the Bob Lee Swagger series.