“When a retired hitman is forced back into action by a sadistic young thug, he hunts down his adversaries with the skill and ruthlessness that made him an underworld legend.”
– AMAZON VIDEO SYNOPSIS
I give film a shit time when it comes to storytelling. It’s not even a bad medium, it’s just a challenging one. Balancing incredible characters, an intriguing plot, and complex worldbuilding with a format that only allots you two hours (give or take)? Think about how much you usually get done in two hours.
The issue could just be me. Maybe I’m a little too picky, maybe I like my stories too deep. I want more than what the typical two hour film will give me – that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy film. But if I’m looking for something more, it’s not my go-to. But now and then there will be a film that not only passes the bar I’ve set, it leaps over it. A story that goes far beyond what I ever expected.
Action films are the absolute last place I would ever turn to get a good story or fleshed out characters. There are some exceptions, but the formula of “good shoot ‘em up = (rugged lead + gun) x massive body count” just isn’t my thing. And I grew up loving the Fast & Furious franchise. So I’m sure you can imagine how much I bucked against my friends telling me to just watch John Wick already. These were friends I relied on to point me to good stories, and here they were telling me to watch a film where every clip I could find seemed to include at least five people getting shot.
I love Keanu Reeves. But there are just some things I wouldn’t do.
But my friends are incredibly stubborn. So I found the film on TV one day and put it on as background noise while I worked on some college essay or other. “This way,” I told myself, “I can tell them I tried.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that the ‘I tried’ was actually going to be what I said to my parents about my homework when they came home that afternoon, not the film.
FORCING YOU TO FILL IN THE BLANKS
John Wick does this thing that a lot of stories – no matter the medium – tend to shy away from: it doesn’t give you a lot of information. Sometimes it doesn’t even do that much; it just tells you to suck it up, we’re not exploring that because it’s not important. Where it does give information, it does so carefully. Because the story opens with Wick as an already established force in the criminal underworld, there’s a whole story there that we don’t know. But instead of having his backstory handed to us, we’re only given glimpses into it across the three films.
Everything we learn in the series develops organically. Nothing is given en masse, and the information is dropped so quietly you might miss it if you’re not paying attention. Anything that isn’t absolutely necessary, we learn through context clues that may take some extra time to wade through.
It takes three films before we are clearly handed some of the answers to John Wick’s past, before he was an assassin. And while Chapter 2 introduces the High Table – the international overseers of the world’s many criminal organizations – as more than just a name, we don’t really see its inner workings until Chapter 3 – Parabellum.
We can assume that the communication network the underground uses – which is never discussed, only shown – was established no later than 1994; the use of Commmodore 64 computers means that their system had to be established before the company went bankrupt.
Presumably, the use of C64s is to minimize hacking threats, as they also use rotary phones and a (highly organized) physical file storage system.
IT’S NOT BAD PACING, IT’S CAREFULLY TIMED REVEALS
For example, Chapter 2 may lead you to believe that the Continental and the Bowery King’s intelligence network are completely under the High Table’s thumb. But Chapter 3 – Parabellum, shows that the High Table is forced to rule through fear, and these groups are actually only partners. Winston, the manager of the New York’s Continental, plays the game and does it well – but he’s only one of many and easily replaceable (as all of the managers are). The Bowery King, who built his network from the ground up, does not maintain the same cool distance as many of the others and does not appreciate the High Table’s attempts to rule over them.
But I would argue that one of the most important clues to be shown throughout the John Wick series, is how the underworld of the High Table operates within society. That is to say, I believe it operates as on a semi-public level.
In both John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2, there is a character named Jimmy. A police officer in the town where John lives; his only two appearances are immediately after John has had to fight for his life in his home. In the first, Jimmy arrives due to a noise complaint that was phoned in. When he sees the dead body behind John, he asks, “You working again?” In Chapter 2, he reappears after John’s home is set on fire, and after asking if it was a gas leak he repeats his question from the first film – to which John only says goodbye and walks away. Before the scene changes, we see Jimmy looking exasperated. He knows he’ll have to cover something up for his friend.
In Parabellum, we see a greater number of fights and killings in very public spaces compared to the prior two films. No one seems to react much to them. When the New York Continental is deconsecrated, the announcement is played over the hotel’s loudspeaker. And when the High Table’s forces arrive soon after, they come in a van with a logo and make no attempt at hiding that they’re in full body armor with massive rifles. This, paired with the imagery of John Wick as either the boogeyman, or the man you send to kill the boogeyman, leads me to believe that the High Table and its underlings are the thing that go bump in the night, the scary monsters you pretend don’t exist. Instead of being a secret organization underground, they operate clearly in daylight. The common populace has little to fear, aside from getting caught in the crossfire, but they benefit from the world all the same (especially considering the number of innocents at the Red Circle Club and Gianna’s party in Rome).
“You working again?”
– JIMMY THE COP, PROBABLY TIRED OF JOHN’S BULLSHIT
BABA YAGA, THE GHOST, THE BOOGEYMAN
As a visual medium, film relies on imagery to convey as much story and characterization as it can. The simplest things may become key to a character – and considering he’s a man of few words, these elements are absolutely necessary to characterizing John Wick.
Consider the most obvious aspect to Wick’s character, the event that sets him off in the first film: the murder of the puppy, Daisy. Now, the jokes about him snapping are all good and fun, but the truth is this event and the imagery that comes with it are incredibly important in the film. Daisy was a gift from John’s recently passed wife, a sign that she believed he could move on and continue loving despite her leaving the world. So to murder the dog was to destroy everything Helen thought of John, as well as the last piece of her she left to him.
Interestingly we circle back to this idea at the end of the first film, when John takes a dog from the vet office her breaks into. By taking a different dog, it shows he still wants to live the way that Helen believed in. Despite falling back into the world he had tried so hard to escape, he still vows to keep that promise to her. A simple action, but incredibly revealing.
THE BARRIER BETWEEN
A particularly striking bit of imagery that crosses between the first film and Chapter 2 is the case that John Wick uncovers in his basement.
In the first film, he ruthlessly destroys the concrete that seals it in the ground after Daisy’s murder. But in the second film, after returning home with his new dog, he carefully buries it once more. The patch of ground is seamlessly blended into the floor once more.
It is a physical display of John sealing away his old life once again, burying it under layers and switching back to his peaceful life.
This also plays into the consistent use of contrasting lighting in the films, especially bright blue and red. This is most prevalent in the scene from the first film where John Wick is in a shootout in the Red Circle Club, though the colors are now used in the opening credits as well. In watching the films, we see that there are two sides to John: the quiet man, and the experienced assassin. In the club, John repeatedly checks his fire and does not harm innocents. But he ruthlessly shoots and kills dozens of his target’s body guards.
Blue is repeatedly associated with John’s more human side, as many of the earliest scenes are tinged with blue and his attire is made up of dark blues. We can even connect this to Chapter 3 – Parabellum, where his mercy is typically shown in scenes filled with blue lighting. The bright red, of course, the exact opposite – the assassin.
Such distinct, repeated color usage is as important in characterization as an individual’s dialogue or actions. Visual media requires it to be.
BE SEEING YOU, JOHN
The John Wick universe isn’t complete. There is at least one more confirmed film, with I believe a fifth planned, and a television series in the works. Which means we don’t have all the pieces to this universe yet. Parabellum definitely worked to set up more openings, but with the way the series reveals its information we can’t be sure what exactly is going to be key.
What we can be sure of, though, is that the series is an excellent example of developing for the long run. How to keep from overwhelming audiences with too much information too quickly, but also how to give them just enough to get them pumped up while needing more. What they’re showing is that it’s not a bad thing to keep all the details from the audience, so long as you make it clear that what’s being kept from them just isn’t important (at least for the time being). And that there is some real power in showing through context clues, rather than giving through words.