A man’s dog is killed, denying him the right to grieve, and in recompense, he burns down Mount Olympus. This is the story of a man named John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who is called the Baba Yaga by those who fear him. Despite that title, John Wick is the most human part of John Wick, at least to begin with.
In true action hero fashion, John is retired when we first meet him, having left his life as an assassin for his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan). We don’t find out much about Helen, only that John loved her, and she died from natural causes before the story begins. This detail is essential as it set’s John Wick films apart from its contemporaries. There’s no one to blame for Helen’s death, so John must experience the ebbs and flows of human grief naturally. Helen, in her final days, left John a grief therapy dog named Daisy to help guide him through this process. However, John’s house is broken into by the Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of a gangster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nvqvist). He beats John, takes his car, and— in a moment of senseless and needless violence— kills Daisy thus robbing John of his only way to grieve.
John Wick presents itself as a deconstruction of the action hero when really, it’s a deconstruction (figurative and literally) of the action genre holistically. Where modern action films—Taken, Olympus Has Fallen— build an over-complicated web of relationships to motivate and humanize their heroes John Wick hones its motivation to a sharpened point. Iosef killed Daisy, and without Daisy John cannot grieve. John needs emotional catharsis, and now the only way he can reach it is avenging Daisy.
It’s no mistake that Chapter 1 starts at the chronological end. We’re introduced to John when bloody, battered, and near death. In what could be his final moment he takes out his phone and watches an old video of himself and his wife Helen at the beach. While he watches the video, he allows himself to grieve. We see all this before John becomes the Baba Yaga because we need to understand that his violence does not and cannot come from a human place. Rather it comes from the denial of that thing that makes us human, emotions.
The genius of Reeves’ casting reveals itself when John is the Baba Yaga, he is a force of nature; a gun-toting, suit-wearing, remorseless, merciless, and unstoppable killer. John is the epitome of action-hero coolness. John Wick is the perfect fit for Reeves who throughout his career has excelled in projects that put a premium on physicality (The Matrix, Speed, Point Break) and struggled in his attempts at complex emotional expression (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch knew that the audience would have these preconceptions about Reeves and instead of trying to overcome them Stahelski and Leitch leaned into them. John Wick provides the minimum amount of backstory and lets us fill in the blanks using our own cultural baggage, namely our understanding of the Keanu Reeves persona. In that way, Reeves is the perfect avatar for John Wick as the line between Reeves’ stoniness and John’s emotional denial is impossible to delineate. Reeves isn’t playing John Wick as much as he is John Wick.
Stahelski and Leitch were aware the world of John Wick was rather dense and wanted Reeves on screen as often as possible because even if we don’t understand the world of John Wick we at least understand Reeves. When preparing for Chapter 1 Reeves underwent intense stunt training as, he practiced marksmanship, jiu-jitsu, and stunt-driving for eight hours a day, five days a week, for four months. It meant that when filming started Reeves was capable of doing every stunt himself. Reeves already operates on the same emotional register as Wick, but by having him do his own stunts Stahelski and Leitch turned Reeves into the perfect lens through which the audience could watch these movies. The world is dense and the action is intricate, but Reeves is straightforward—keeping us grounded at all times.
This allows Chad Stahelski (director of Chapter 1 & 2 and the upcoming Chapter 3), David Leitch (co-director of Chapter 1 and producer on Chapter 2), and Dereck Kolstad (screenwriter on all three) to create a vibrant and unique crime underworld that deconstructs action cinema. Once John commits to returning he enters a near-perpetual night where all the lights are neon, all the music is EDM, and everyone has a plastic quality about them. The aesthetic of John Wick is designed to feel otherworldly, befitting the modern Mount Olympus.
Kolstad describes John and Viggo as ‘the gods of New York’, an angle that Stahelski and Leitch expanded upon when bringing the script to the screen. Every major character in Chapter 1 has an approximate analog from Greek mythology. Winston (Ian McShane) is the keeper the Hotel Continental like Zeus with Olympus. Charon (Lance Reddick), the concierge and informant at the hotel is the modern Apollo, the god of guidance. Viggo is the Ares, god of war. His son Iosef is Deimos, the son of Ares who fears conflict. Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) is Athena, Charlie (David Patrick Kelly) is Hephaestus, Marcus (Willem Dafoe) is Hades, the list goes on. Stahelski, Leitch, and Kolstad actively returned John Wick to where all narratives find their roots, ancient mythology.
The world of John Wick is bound by a unique set of laws and etiquette—people cannot be killed on the grounds of the Hotel Continental; all contracts must be honored. Functionally, these rules are filmmaking structure and semiotics exposed and then dramatized. They create obstacles for John that are internally consistent in this world while remaining a touch self-aware. In other action films, these obstacles feel contrived, but John Wick lays the groundwork so that they don’t just feel justified but narratively rewarding.
This is what makes John Wick feel so singular—many films have attempted to replicate this feeling, but none have succeeded beyond a superficial level. Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 (both directed by Leitch) reapply the action and energy of John Wick to different sub-genres successfully but lack the veracious entry point that is Reeves. Hotel Artemis, Red Sparrow, and Peppermint meanwhile attempt to replicate John Wick’s worldbuilding and deconstruction of the genre but pale in comparison because they appropriate John Wick’s style without understanding how its style is informed by theme and structure. John Wick’s secret to success is its marrying of genre deconstruction to the on-screen violence and destruction.
Loss is at the core of the John Wick films, Helen and Daisy in Chapter 1, John’s possessions and livelihood in Chapter 2. The ongoing losses John experiences strips him of his humanity. When John returns to his roots as an assassin he takes a hammer and cracks open the concrete floor of his house, unearthing his weapons and his past. At that moment he rejoins the gods, becoming irrevocably divorced from his humanity. He is Czernobog, the god of darkness and death.
Czernobog is a Slavic god, an intruder in the Greek pantheon. Thus making John a literal disruptive force within the world. There never seems to be a shortage of people for John to kill. John kills Iosef, Viggo attempts to avenge him. John kills Viggo, fracturing the pantheon, throwing Mount Olympus into disarray, and inviting more violence in Chapter 2. No matter how many people he kills there’s always more, violence is a hydra. One dogs death demands death in retaliation which demands more death again. The cycle cannot end until Mount Olympus is burnt to the ground or John is dead.
In Chapter 1 John can kill goons and gods, eventually, this is not enough—the action genre demands ever-growing stakes leading to Wick taking his hammer to the world itself. Chapter 2 pushes the deconstruction beyond characters and plot to the rules that govern John Wick‘s world, breaking each of them in turn. First, John fails to honor his contract to Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio), who destroys his house in response. John then completes the contract only for D’Antonio break the rules in return by framing him for the murder and trying to have him killed. Their actions prove that all the laws and civility of the Hotel Continental are constructs that they are willing to do away with; Johns hammer fractures the bedrock of Mount Olympus further.
Inhumanity and savagery spread in their absence, manifesting both in John and his enemies. In Chapter 2 there’s a sequence that is the action equivalent of the dress montage in romance films. John is given a “taster”. He’s tailored a bulletproof suit, making him capable of withstanding superhuman amounts of harm. Then he is equipped with every type of specialized weapon imaginable, his destructive capabilities grow as his humanity diminishes. Similarly, where in Chapter 1 his enemies were Mr. Perkins and Marcus, complex individuals with their own moral codes. In Chapter 2 there are more enemies and they are infinitely less human. D’Antonio’s guard, Ares (Ruby Rose), is as relentless as John, doubly remorseless, and mute—her metaphorical inhumanity making her literally incapable of a basic form of human expression.
In the finale of Chapter 2, John and Ares fight in a hall of mirrors. At this point they aren’t people anymore, they are death and war incarnate. Loss has magnified and multiplied until they are little more than concepts masquerading as characters; the two most basic elements of action cinema surrounded by a thousand reflections of themselves. Every gunshot, every punch, is repeated as far as the eye can see in a sequence of unending violence.
Chapter 2 ends with John breaking the unbreakable rule — killing D’Antonio on the Hotel Continental grounds. His loss has magnified itself over and over destroying others, destroying himself, and even destroying the most immutable laws of their world. He killed a man in the Hotel Continental, Mount Olympus burns. Figurative deconstruction of the action genre and the literal destruction of the laws, people, and systems coalesce. As we survey the wrath that John has wrought we are reminded that all this was sparked by the killing of a dog and that this is the action genre driven to its natural extreme. In the John Wick series loss never breeds true catharsis, it just breeds more loss.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum begins with John completely alone. Chapter 1 & 2 built and then broke the action movie. Chapter 3 is the unexplored next.