John Wick Is Losing What Made Him Great In The First Place
The John Wick series has moved away from its original central theme of grief to becoming well-made but generic action movies.
John Wick: Chapter 4 just opened to the best box office of the franchise so far, clearly indicating that audiences are more eager than ever to see Keanu Reeves’ former assassin-turned-current mass murderer fight his way through hordes of bad guys. While it cannot be denied that John Wick has become the preeminent action series of the day, the further it expands its shadowy world of hitman hotels and deadly bureaucracy, the more it loses what made it great to begin with. The core of John Wick is deep, anguishing grief, but it is being replaced by ever-more elaborate fight scenes and flashy supporting actors.
The hook of the original John Wick movie was irresistible: a former hitman comes out of retirement for revenge when his dog is killed and ends up killing the population of a decent-sized town. However, it was never really about the dog, no matter how cute that little beagle was. Although she does not come up all that much four installments in, all of this has to do with Helen (Bridget Moynahan), Wick’s dead wife.
As one can recall, the first John Wick movie began with Helen passing away from an unspecified illness (call it Non-Specific Widower Syndrome) and leaving Wick with a puppy to help him manage his grief. The entire first act of the film has no action, no guns, no extended martial arts scenes; it is merely a quiet, isolated man learning to feel something after the center of his world is ripped away from him.
Then a group of Slavic thugs beats up John, kills the dog, and steals his sweet 1969 Boss 429 Mustang. From there, we enter a bizarre underworld of Russian mob imagery, golden marker coins, High Tables, Adjudicators, and Donnie Yen, which has overwhelmingly become the focus of the franchise.
But there have been plenty of revenge movies in the past and more than enough examining secret worlds of crime. John Wick excels in that it is so shamelessly over-the-top in its vision of a secretly all-powerful world of violence just under the surface of reality; it’s not even the first time that Keanu Reeves has delved into that particular concept. As the series goes on, it becomes less and less about what motivated Wick to begin with and more about him encountering more and more deadly opponents.
At this point, John Wick is no longer really about a man attempting to pull himself out of unimaginable grief: the loss of a loved one after a career of death and a childhood of unending, merciless training and torture. It is about a killer dealing with the consequences of his actions, barely managing to keep ahead of his fate with each subsequent violation of secret laws.
It is no accident that the John Wick films have a motif of dogs; after all, as we have recently pointed out, the fate of dogs in cinema is one of the most sure-fire ways to inspire sympathy and connection with a character. It is also noteworthy that the franchise began with a dog as a symbol of humanity and healing, by the third movie, Halle Berry’s dogs are being used as living weapons. There could not be a better way to illustrate the transition of John Wick in the series from a man whose grief is transformed into towering rage to a man whose every action is about violence.
None of this is a criticism of the skill of Chad Stahelski’s filmmaking or Keanu Reeves’ ability to embody yet another iconic action hero. But somewhere along the way, the series became so consumed with its stylized mirror world of assassins that it forgot to pay attention to the sorrow at the center of it. There are lots of action movies out there. Few have ever centered grief so clearly, and then discarded it so quickly.