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The true theme of the John Wick films is that money breeds violence.

2023-03-24  Sophia Zackary


What exactly qualifies John Wick as a hero? In the never-ending chain of superheroes and antiheroes that make up Hollywood blockbuster movies, he does not feel like either one. After killing individuals for exorbitant sums of money, falling in love, and leaving the business of assassination, he went on a killing spree across four movies to exact revenge for a perceived slight on himself. He is not trying to save the world, and the ethics of what he is doing do not concern him in the least. Simply put, he is irate. In the latest instalment of the John Wick series, titled John Wick: Chapter 4, the protagonist's resentment is directed at an engaging adversary: the wealthy. Within the continuity of the John Wick series, a person of great wealth can't avoid engaging in violent activity.

In the movie based on John Wick, the profession of assassination is portrayed as an honourable one, one that is supported by regulations and entrenched in luxury. This is done to differentiate its practitioners from "the animals," as hotelier-turned-assassin Winston (Ian McShane) comments on multiple occasions. It wasn't necessarily the first film's commitment to surgically precise widescreen action that redefined the action-thriller genre that was the biggest surprise of the first film; rather, it was the elaborate lore the film deliberately kept out of its trailers, which doesn't come into play until about halfway through the movie. The rules of contract murder are a big part of the appeal of the John Wick franchise.

The most fantastic aspect of the John Wick film series is not the hypercompetent carnage, but rather the way that people use their riches as a weapon. In his society, even the lowest-level street thugs can fight for multimillion-dollar assassination bounties. However, for the genuine participants — individuals like John and the assassin elite who want him dead — money is not an issue. Entitlement is. From the very first John Wick film onward, audiences have been led to believe that in his world, a person may stroll into a building, pass a token across a desk, and immediately expect to be treated with complete deference and premium luxury. Players that possess the appropriate amount of dollars to get access to all that is advertised in these sparkling areas.

This adds a new layer of complexity to the Wickian humour in which screenwriter Derek Kolstad and his numerous collaborators and successors give their supporting characters titles that reflect trades found in the lifestyle business. All of this takes place behind the front desks of The Continental's international chain of five-star hotels, where "sommeliers" sell weapons, "tailors" design bulletproof outfits, and "concierges" make sure everything works smoothly for every customer. Within its doors, an assassin in the world of John Wick gets everything they need, including peace of mind. This is because one of the ironclad principles of this society is that there is no "business" (meaning, no murder-for-pay) performed on Continental premises. There is one in every city, and an assassin in the John Wick world has everything they need within its walls.

The notion that true wealth implies that one does not require money in and of itself has been put to rest by Gentleman's Quarterly. (Actual currency appears less and less in the films as the story goes on.) The films about John Wick end up being about what it takes to reach and keep that level of riches. This is the primary distinction between John Wick and James Bond, in addition to the fact that John Wick's name has an additional letter.

Take into consideration the characteristics of Wick's enemies as the movie go. Iosef (Alfie Allen), the irresponsible son of a Russian mobster, steals Wick's car and kills his dog at the beginning of the first film. This sets the stage for the rest of the story. Iosef's cocky and violent behaviour is characteristic of the swagger of the nouveau riche. His sense of entitlement reveals a lack of appreciation for the hard work that his father, who came to this country as a refugee, put in to build the fortune that he now enjoys.

Iosef's father, Viggo, played by Michael Nyqvist, is a crime boss, but he is a principled one in the vein of Vito Corleone. He is someone who honours his relationships and recognises that his standing is precarious since it is always threatened by desperate crooks under him and powerful players above him. The haughtiness of Iosef is the final domino that sends everything sliding down, taking Wick on a journey that demonstrates to viewers exactly how far down the rabbit hole of illicit activity this world goes.

The shifting demographics of John Wick's body count are a direct reflection of this fact. He begins by shooting out low-level gangsters in chop shops and bathhouses, then moves on to slick hired muscle in the remnants of the Old World in Europe, skillfully equipped kill groups that run him out of New York, and samurai SWAT teams in Chapter 4. The franchise has transitioned from the flamboyant and loud crime of street kingpins to the theatrical splendour of the overlords many levels above them. These overlords rely on an increasingly higher calibre of the foot soldier, in addition to routinely sending Wick's former comrades against him. The franchise has moved away from the flashy and loud crime of street kingpins.

As a result of this escalation, Wick becomes deeper enmeshed in the economy of favours and power brokers that existed in his prior society. His world of assassins is governed by the High Table, which is a group of 12 people who are largely unseen and who keep the global balance of power in check by a system of ceremony and reverent deference that is quite Catholic. Because the integrity of the system can only be preserved if everyone obeys the wealthiest powers, the ones who are the farthest removed from the mayhem they orchestrate, Wick's vendettas against gangster-movie crime lords cause him to violate their rules. This, in turn, makes him the target of the High Table (and virtually every assassin alive), because the rules are designed to protect the integrity of the system.

Given all of this, the John Wick films become an unintentional statement on the link between riches and violence: The mistake that John Wick has made is not simply quitting the game; rather, it is that he has gone back to the business of assassination and believes that he can resume using the advantages afforded to him by the High Table without re-acquainting himself with the organisation's stringent system of lives and debts. When we first meet Wick, his wife has already passed away, but he continues to lead a comfortable life with the puppy that she gave him as a last-ditch effort to keep him grounded in his humanity. He maintains both his muscle car and his huge, contemporary home to a high standard. In all appearances, he does not lack anything.

That was an extraordinary existence, as we find out from several of Wick's former coworkers who are now bitter, and the High Table just about managed to put up with it. (In Chapter 2, we are informed that for him to get out of the business of assassination, he had to attempt an "impossible task.") A return by Wick to the underworld of assassination is likewise accepted, but only up until the point where he begins to break the rules. After then, he becomes an existential threat since there is a possibility that he will "fuck up the money," as the expression goes.

The absurdity in this situation is that as Wick comes closer to the High Table, everyone thinks their hands are cleaner than they are. The wealth becomes increasingly ostentatious as the settings vary from seedy dive bars to villas in Casablanca or sumptuous estates in Paris. All of these locations are owned by High Table players or those who cosy up to them. In Chapter 4, we see Wick continuing to exact his revenge on the people who orchestrate acts of violence and benefit from those acts despite never taking part in the crime themselves.

Even if he doesn't have a strong ideological bias towards wealthy people, it's still cathartic to watch him take them down one by one. They are just so pointedly insufferable — the Adjudicator, who represents the High Table in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum and is portrayed by Asia Kate Dillon, moves through the world with clipped entitlement, secure even among buildings full of killers, as a representative of the institution that makes their world go round. This is seen in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Bill Skarsgard, who appears in Chapter 4 as the Marquis Vincent de Gramont. He is an agent who has been instilled with all of the authority and petty propriety of the High Table. He is seen petulantly demanding to know why his enormous army of assassins has not yet delivered John Wick's life to him. He is seen eating expensive pastries off of tiny plates from large buffets that appear to be created especially for his enjoyment. Other things he is seen doing include having phones given to him by subordinates.
The movies have long portrayed John Wick as a dead man walking, a man who said goodbye to a happy ending the moment he picked up his gun again. This sly shift from a vendetta against street-level criminals to an attack on the pampered elite makes John Wick's goal not simple revenge against a person but rather an attack on an institution. As is the case with a large number of general genre constructions, the High Table can be a metaphor for a wide variety of different things, including the real-world 1 per cent, dictatorial religious institutions, or political regimes that cloak oppression in the façade of democracy. In all seriousness, it is irrelevant. What is important is that Wick, like many other people in modern society, is being held hostage by something much larger than him that he has no chance of overcoming. But if he continues to make his way towards the source of his suffering, there is still a chance that he will find some satisfaction in his life before it is over.

If there is one question that John Wick: Chapter 4 seeks to answer, it is this one: When is enough, enough? John Wick has travelled the world and climbed the social ladder through the use of his assassination skills. His very presence poses a risk to the overall dominance of the top one per cent of the population. However, the concept that his brutality might be used to accomplish anything is highly questionable, which is something that the movies have emphasised in the past and will continue to emphasise now. There is no way to achieve satisfaction. His puppy won't be coming back, and with it, the wife that the puppy represented to him will also not be returning. Even if its officials start dying off like flies, the High Table will almost certainly live on. Wealth and power have a way of self-perpetuating, and the vast majority of it tends to trickle upward to a very select few in John Wick's novel, just as they do in the real world.

This brings us full round to the topic that we began with: what kind of a hero is John Wick? He appeals to audiences that have an innate desire to destroy everything and begin again, as well as those that believe the world to be in such a state of disrepair that they don't know where to start trying to mend it. But they certainly are aware of who is to blame, and in the John Wick movies, they are aware of where to get fulfilment for their anger.


2023-03-24  Sophia Zackary