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John Wick: Defying Stereotypical Action Men

While there are dozens of new action films that reach movie theater screens each year, none of the recent pieces of cinematography has gotten as much praise as John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 starring Keanu Reeves as the protagonist. For the sake of a detailed analysis, this paper will focus on the first chapter of the story since it provided a firm foundation for the exploration of John Wick as an action movie character fighting for the cause that was dear to heart.

What Makes John Wick Different?

Unlike many other action films on which Hollywood is trying to make some money, John Wick is an exceptional piece of cinematography that did not only include dramatic scenes of battles and car chases. The plot itself was the ‘hook’ that managed to keep viewers invested in the story of an ex-assassin who was forced out of his retirement and mourning for the loss of his wife by a misfortunate sequence of events. The character of John Wick is far from being relatable or even likable. However, the script (especially the short dialogues between characters) painted a picture of an action man in an action film that did not conform with the stereotypical depiction of such characters. John Wick is a movie that separated itself from hundreds of action films by employing worldbuilding and visual storytelling to progress the narrative. It is also important to point out the usage of the Russian language in the movie: John Wick is depicted as an intelligent assassin that can speak a foreign tongue fluently; this characteristic sets him apart from many other action men who prefer to win by using only force, to which Wick was no stranger.

Starting from the ’80s, the male body became an essential characteristic of an action film: the majority of male protagonists were depicted as pumped-up and hyper-muscular men who tried to declare their power while attempting to suppress the anxieties about their capacity to remain in control of a situation[1]. However, the character of John Wick goes against the cliché of a strong male protagonist who depends on the power of his body to stay in control. While Wick uses force and fights against the mafia who accidentally crossed his path, what drives him is not the desire to be in control, but the vengeance for the loss of his pet and the stolen car made him as furious as he has ever been. A viewer who does not look beyond the surface may find asking himself or herself a question: “why is John Wick was so upset about his car being stolen? It’s just a car.” The key theme that was included in many scenes in the movie was associated with Wick reminiscing about his wife he lost to cancer; every animate or inanimate object in his house reminded him of her, and the sudden appearance of the mafia set a trigger for destruction and revenge that John preferred not to stop until reaching his goal.

Some critics described John Wick as a reverse slasher film, and such a description has some ground in the movie itself: the main character is literally referred to as the ‘Baba Yaga’[2] (a figure from the Slavic mythology with which parents usually scared their children for disobedience). However, a slasher film would have ended with the main character (e.g., Freddy Krueger) ending his revenge path just by killing ‘the main guy’; in John Wick, the main character was seeking reconciliation from the grievance caused to him, which gives the film much more substance compared to a typical slasher film. It is fascinating that the viewer could understand the position Wick had; if one was to place himself or herself into the shoes of John Wick, whose wife had died recently and whose retirement was disrupted by a mobster’s son who stole his car and violently killed a puppy, it is evident that no one would have decided to forget about everything and go on with life.

Silent Films vs. John Wick

As it has already been mentioned, worldbuilding and visual storytelling are components that set John Wick apart from the majority of other action films with typical action men. To a large extent, John Wick can be compared to silent films of Buster Keaton, where filmmakers did not have much choice but to put the entire story in the camera without the use of sound[3]. Of course, there was an abundance of new tricks of digital technology that helped the John Wick movies be secure for performance and smooth in terms of production, but the spirit of silent films remained alive in how the director chose to shoot action episodes and stunt team tricks. In the movie, shots are unusually long and do not include many close-ups. Performers’ faces are kept in the frame for the purpose of viewers’ being sure that they participate in the scene. When there is a car crashing or someone falling from the stairs – the movie promises that everything is real and that there is no editing around performers who cannot fight [4] as it was in silent films. The fact that dialogues are shorter than usual also adds to the impression that John Wick followed the traditions of silent films where imagery spoke for itself.

Who is John Wick?

Being a living legend in the world that surrounded him, the name of John Wick called for nothing but respected and feared. His past was definitely blood-drenched since he was not afraid of killing anyone who had crossed his path. On the other hand, Wick was a polite and intelligent man who would have never made a move on a person that had not done anything wrong. To some extent, John can also be characterized as merciful since he had given several people a chance to walk away from bloody massacres. It is also interesting to note that the majority of John Wick’s aggression is delivered with a cold demeanor and a stone expression on his face, which cannot be said about many action men in action movies. It is likely that Wick learned to suppress his emotions during his work as an assassin, so it is possible that his professional qualities transferred to his personal characteristics and became a part of who John was. Unfortunately, the plot does not allow viewers to get to known John closer. The details of his personality or his past can be traced in some scenes at the beginning of the movie, leaving the rest for imagination. On the other hand, the fact that viewers know so little about John Wick plays to the advantage of the character being described as mysterious.

The concept of male victimization and crisis followed by the declaration of male power[5] cannot be applied to John Wick to the same extent as it was applied to Gladiator, for example. While the main character in Gladiator attempted to ‘masculinize’ himself through violence, John Wick had a violent past in the first place and had no intent in being perceived as masculine. Despite the fact that some people speculated that John was victimized by the mafia at the beginning of the film, the characteristics of his personality allowed Wick to stay calm and have vengeance over those who crossed him. Because the name of John Wick was feared and respected in the criminal underworld, it is hard to assume that he was truly victimized, which cannot be said about men who crossed Wick’s path.

Conclusion

To conclude, the active character of John Wick can be rather compared to Buster Keaton than average men from blockbuster movies. The filmmakers made a choice to focus on visual storytelling and present viewers with an action movie that is unlike anything else they usually see at cinemas. A large bulk of action characters are motivated by some sort of altruism (e.g., saving the planet from aliens or helping a damsel in distress); however, John Wick was led solely by revenge, and his sense of honor as well as the fact that those people who crossed him undoubtedly deserved it kept Wick from becoming the main villain character. By putting the majority of the story into visuals, John Wick is a movie that succeeded in selling action and violence in a way that the majority of action films could not.

Bibliography

Hall, Jacob. “Heartbreaks and Headshots: The Action Movie Majesty of the ‘John Wick’ Series.” Slashfilm. 

“Movie Review – John Wick.” TLDR Movie Reviews. 2016. 

Purse, Lisa. Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

Foonotes

  1. Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 97.
  2. “Movie Review – John Wick,” TLDR Movie Reviews, Web.
  3. Jacob Hall, “Heartbreaks and Headshots: The Action Movie Majesty of the ‘John Wick’ Series,” Slashfilm, Web.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 96.
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