John Wick: A Killer’s Natural Habitat

Spoiler/Content Warning: The dog dies.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about the John Wick franchise for Short Ends, so with the fourth movie hitting theaters later this month, what better way to channel my excitement than by exploring the franchise through this issue’s habitat theme? The first John Wick (2014, dir. Chad Stahelski) kicks things off with a pretty straightforward premise: the titular retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) goes on a revenge rampage after his dog is brutally killed in a home invasion. I’m not a dog owner myself, but this seems like a perfectly reasonable response to the situation. However, with the franchise now having gone on for almost a decade with no signs of slowing down, it’s obvious that the world of John Wick is much more complex than it might appear at first glance. The action and canine-avenging are elements of an overarching story about a grieving husband who gradually loses everything that reminds him of the woman he loved, including the home they created together, in a cruel twist of fate that sees his reluctant return to a world of ruthless killers.

The first film opens on Wick, battered and bloody, as he tumbles out of a crashed car and crawls away to watch a video of his beloved late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), recorded on his phone. We then flash back to Wick sitting at Helen’s bedside as she dies from an undisclosed illness, later holding her funeral under a dreary, raining sky. The Wick residence features heavily in these early scenes; a serene and beautifully modern suburban home that will later become the site of extreme violence. In her article for Fancy Pants Homes, Ioana Neamt describes the house, which is a real property in Mill Neck, New York, as having qualities of seclusion and loneliness, which “only adds to the heartbreak because it looks like it would have been a beautiful family home.” Ouch. Wick is bathed in melancholic shades of grey and blue as he goes about his morning routine on the day of Helen’s death, but the house “comes alive again, even if just for a short time” (Neamt) with a warmer golden-toned colour palette when a posthumous gift from Helen arrives on Wick’s doorstep: a beagle puppy named Daisy.

Helen’s passing is made all the more tragic given that Wick had retired from being a hitman five years prior, meaning that they only had a short time together. Daisy is supposed to be a ray of hope shining through Wick’s grief, something for him to love in Helen’s absence, but that too is cut short by an unfortunate chance run-in with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of a Russian mobster who used to be Wick’s employer. Neamt notes that one of the most beautiful features in Wick’s house, floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light, also leave him vulnerable to attack as Iosef and his goons break in, beat Wick senseless, steal his car, and (I’m sorry to bring this up again) kill Daisy. While Iosef has no idea who Wick is, his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) is all-too-aware of Wick’s legendary status as one of the world’s deadliest assassins, also known as the Baba Yaga, or “The Boogeyman”. Viggo’s attempt to send a hit squad after Wick proves futile, as Wick basically turns his own house “into a shooting range” (Neamt), which is a fitting description for much of the settings throughout the series; the nameless and nondescript mooks that come after Wick merely serve as obstacles and targets, quickly becoming nothing more than set dressing once their bodies hit the floor.

As Wick is forced back out of retirement to exact revenge on those who wronged him, he trades his peaceful domicile filled with cool neutrals and natural lighting for dazzling action set pieces that often take place under neon lights. His journey begins with a literal descent into darkness, with weapons and artifacts from his previous life encased in the concrete floor of his basement. From there, he seems to constantly find himself surrounded by writhing, dancing bodies in nightclubs and parties, or under the glow of city street lights as he goes in for the kill. In Kyle Kallgren’s video essay on “bisexual lighting” in film (named for the phenomenon of blue and red/pink lighting coming together to make purple, which resembles the colors of the bisexual pride flag), he notes that the advent of digital filmmaking has necessitated innovative ways of lighting dark scenes with color, saying of John Wick: “When modern filmmakers tell stories about people who live in shadows, we simply light the shadows.” Wick seems “more vulnerable in oranges and yellows”, but he’s a killing machine “in blues and pinks”; his targets can’t see him, but the audience can, and he looks cool as hell. 

By the end of the first movie, Wick is able to successfully take down both Iosef and Viggo, and while patching up one of his many wounds in a veterinary clinic, he finds a new dog, an as-of-yet unnamed pit bull, and takes him home. If this had been just one self-contained standalone story, that would have been the end of it: a hard-earned happy ending for Wick. But as stated previously, John Wick is now a commercially successful franchise, so there’s much more to it than that. The Continental Hotel, where Wick seeks refuge in the first film and which caters specifically to assassins so long as they don’t “conduct business” (read: kill) on hotel grounds, becomes much more significant with each subsequent entry in the franchise. Two of Wick’s biggest allies are the hotel’s manager Winston (Ian McShane) and concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), and the transitional space seems to become a more permanent home for Wick after his house is burned to the ground in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, dir. Chad Stahelski) by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), to whom Wick is indebted for helping him complete the “impossible task” that allowed him to leave the assassin underworld in the first place.

However, the Continental proves to be only a temporary protection. As we come to find out going from Chapter 2 to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019, dir. Chad Stahelski), the hotel is bound by rules set by the High Table, a governing body that oversees every crime syndicate in the John Wick universe (a universe which, if you couldn’t tell by now, is actually quite absurd—elements like the gold coins that grant Wick access to any place or any service he requires, names of characters like Charon coming straight out of classical mythology, and even Wick’s nicknames, coming from stories meant to spook generations of children, give the whole thing a ridiculously larger-than-life scale). Wick is declared excommunicado (literally excommunicated) from the Continental by Winston after breaking its cardinal rule, killing Santino on hotel grounds, which forces him to seek help from the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), who runs an underground intelligence network fronting as a homeless shelter in New York City. We also learn Wick’s true identity, a Belarusian orphan who’s real name is Jardani Jovanovich, as he returns to the organization he was raised by to plead asylum. 

All of this leads to my central question: where does John Wick truly belong? In essence, what is a killer’s natural habitat? If given the choice, Wick would most certainly choose to live in a romantic comedy-style happy ending instead of the ongoing nightmare he’s living out in an action-thriller series. While he’s tried multiple times now to get back out, the assassin underworld keeps pulling him back in, even destroying the material possessions that hold memories of his late wife: his car (a gift from Helen, along with Daisy), his house, and even his severed wedding ring finger, which he offers up to the High Table to swear his fealty in exchange for their forgiveness. Just as Eurydice disappeared from Orpheus’ sight as he turned to face her while leading her out of the underworld, more and more of Helen disappears as Wick keeps turning back to his former life. And as each new installment sends Wick to more and more exotic locales, like Rome in Chapter 2, Casablanca in Parabellum, and Berlin, Tokyo, and Paris in John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023), he only gets further and further away from the place he briefly called home. 

This then also begs the question, where is this all going? What will this all have been for in the end? In Chapter 4, Wick will be gearing up for a war against the High Table, but for Reeves and Stahelski, the story is centered around one goal: “We keep finding new and interesting ways to have John Wick suffer,” said Stahelski at CinemaCon last year. “That’s where the action comes from. Figure out how to make him suffer, and then design backward.” (Gardner). There are also expansions to the franchise in the works: the spinoff film Ballerina (TBD, dir. Len Wiseman), starring Ana de Armas, and a prequel miniseries about the Continental Hotel, which proves that fans are hungry for more from the world of John Wick and the creative forces behind it clearly want us to live here for a while longer. I do, however, find myself wondering what it is about John Wick that always keeps me coming back for more, especially given its violent subject matter. As a person living in the United States, where there have been more mass shootings this year than there have been actual days in the year, and specifically in Florida, which has seen both the deadliest school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2017 and the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub in 2016, why am I so compelled to watch films that feature a constant barrage of gunfire and bloodshed?

I’ve never bought into the idea that violent video games or films directly inspire people to become violent themselves, as I believe this skirts around more pertinent issues like lax gun control laws in the United States and other societal stressors that drive people to commit acts of violence. However, I do worry that my enjoyment of movies like John Wick only encourages the glorification of guns and violence.  The unfortunate (and most likely unintentional) irony of Wick finding himself in multiple dancefloor shootouts is that nightclubs and dance halls, especially those serving the LGBTQ+ community, no longer feel like safe havens to their patrons because of the unspeakable tragedies that have occurred in recent years. Even more than a decade after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I still tense up when I’m sitting in a theater and see another audience member moving out of the corner of my eye. But I guess there is also a sense of escapism in violent movies: despite his profession, I know that John Wick is a good guy. He has the capacity to love very deeply, and we trust him never to harm innocents or children. It’s a violent revenge fantasy that always feels justified, and if this level of violence belongs anywhere, it belongs only in fiction.

I also just really love Keanu Reeves—a normal amount, I promise. The best I can hope for in the eventual conclusion of the John Wick saga is a final installment where Wick gets a satisfying and merciful ending. As much as I enjoy this franchise, I’m tired of watching this poor man suffer, and if I had my way, it would all end with a movie called John Wick Has a Spa Day and Takes a Nap With His Dog.

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