As John Wick arrives in the UAE, we might well dive into Wickipedia. In the pantheon of upright killers — there’s no better word than upright to describe them — like James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, Jack Reacher, Ethan Hunt and Robert McCall (Equaliser), where does wicked John stand? Well, he’s just getting started. The latest chapter should rake in half a billion bucks at the box office, making the total tally more than a billion since Wick’s debut in 2014.
The essence of Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is neatly summed up by an underworld don, in the first chapter: “John is a man of focus. Commitment. Sheer will. Something you know very little about. I once saw him kill three men in a bar… with a pencil. With a ****in’ pencil. Suddenly one day he asked to leave. It was over a woman, of course. So I made a deal with him. I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation of what we are now. And then, my son, a few days after his wife died… you steal his car, and kill his ****in’ dog.”
But what explains the enduring appeal of a man who massacres thugs because they steal his car and kill his dog? As you look at the violence playbook, you’ll find a whole host of vigilantes or apostles of justice. With commanders, accountants, army veterans, retired spies, rogue spies, soldier spies, underworld vigilantes, and underworld hitmen, the violence market has created enough niches to sell the idea of mindlessness and overkill to all and sundry.
What defines Wick’s moral quotient? Is he as conscientious as McCall, as clinical as Bourne or as amorous as Bond. Wick is unique in many ways. You sense a Mustang in him all the time. When you see him roaring in his Mustang Mach 1, you get nostalgic about another torquey showdown — Steve McQueen’s in Bullitt, with a Mustang GT Fastback. As Wick battles thugs with a cocktail of jiu jitsu, judo, taekwondo, karate, kung fu— all culminating in kill fu — you flash back to John Woo’s action pieces starring Chow Yun-Fat.
Like Woo’s Hard Boiled, Wick is sheer over(t)kill. There are enough weapons, retro included, to shame a gun shop: hand guns (Pit Viper, Glock, Thompson, Smith & Wesson, SIG-Sauer), sub-machine guns (Thompson), shotguns (Dracarys), and rifles (Marlin). Take the vigilante movies of the 1970s: Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Their most lethal ammo: acting and storylines. Though Charles Bronson carried a Colt (Death Wish) and a Magnum (Death Wish 3), it was Clint Eastwood’s Smith & Wesson (Dirty Harry) that glammed the gun. But Harry’s gun never overwhelmed us, it was the Eastwood style that made our day.
That’s not to say that Reeves lacks poise. His taciturn histrionics is the hallmark of the franchise. But he gets upstaged by Chad Stahelski, his stunts double in the Matrix franchise and (currently) Wick director. The Stahelski formula thrives on creativity, execution and practice, in equal measure. He has often spoken about the number of times he practices a sequence till he gets it absolutely right. Critics have raved about his Arc de Triomphe action sequence in Chapter 4, which takes the game well beyond what we have seen in Matrix. If the stunt is the biggest draw of Wick, it’s also because the director and the protagonist have an amazing chemistry since Neo (Matrix’s protagonist played by Reeves) first arrived on the scene.
But peel the layers of Wick one by one and you’ll see more. Like Matrix, Wick too has a philosophical message. Matrix was about a dystopian ecosystem run by machines. Human batteries powered the system while human minds were overpowered by an artificially-created illusion. The world was fine as long as the illusion was intact. In Wick, there is a different kind of illusion at work: Reality can exist only as extreme reality. Violence is the only way to shatter the illusion of justice. As Glocks break the glass, truth unfolds. Wick seeks the truth; he seeks freedom. Neo seeks to save mankind. These are different worlds, different values. One reflects individuality, the other reflects humanity.
In the midst of Wick’s larger message, there’s an attempt to differentiate the storyline. You do not find Wick veering toward the classic ingredients of an action trope: CIA, FBI, MI6, Afghanistan, Iran, Africa, Taliban, non-operative covers, navy SEALs, etc. Instead, there’s a Spectre-type inner circle called The High Table, representing 12 underworld families, spearheaded by The Elder. Like Spectre in the 007 movies, The Table is a fixity in all Wick versions. It sets the ethical code for all assassinations. The Table has its own Langley-type headquarters, called Continental Hotel, spread across criminally lucrative markets. If the intrigue and the retribution at The Table are any indication, then Spectre needs a mega upgrade before the next 007 hits the screens.
Indeed, The Table, The Adjudicator and The Elder are novelties of the crime genre. So’s The Bowery, a network of spies who otherwise appear to be hapless folks. Administration, bureaucracy and kill contracts are managed by accountant-types. Freshly-minted Continental coins are used to safely complete all transactions within the crime universe. The crime families that make The Table have probably been fashioned from The Godfather template: nobody is sacrosanct, not even your sibling.
But déjà vu could soon take over, especially when a franchise is four movies old. It’s time for such a franchise to reinvent itself, to look beyond the fiction it has peddled. But there’s a big challenge, and it goes beyond the story. It’s not just a challenge, it’s the trap of success. The Wick index of acceptance is driven by its success: stunts. The rest are frills. As long as Stahelski keeps raising the bar for stunts — it’s already high — Wick can think beyond Chapter 7.
But here’s what Reeves and Stahelski have achieved even if they don’t reach Chapter 7. They have created a legitimate successor, if not a blood descendant, to Matrix. It may be less philosophical, less spiritual, less intellectual— but it works.
He may well be the only leader with the standing to convince Palestinians to accept an imperfect compromise, if it means they can finally live peacefully alongside Israel in an independent Palestinian state