The Waning Reluctance of John Wick

The most riveting scene in John Wick is the moment when the Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov tells us John Wick’s story:

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 fucking pencil. Then suddenly one day he asked to leave. It’s 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 fucking dog.

The scene of course stands out from much of the rest of the film in that it is an extended dialogue between two characters who, at least nominally, care about each other. It’s also, as it happens, a father telling his son a fairy tale. (It’s not the right fairy tale, since the film’s writers confused the Russian word for boogeyman, babayka, with the more famous Baba Yaga, but, hey, given licenses for screwing up folk tales in various fictions, it’s acceptable and the series makes up for it by later having Wick check out Afanasyev’s Russian Folk Tales.)

The film needs these quiet moments of talking because it needs breaks between choreographed scenes of violence. What distinguishes the Wick movies from others is that the quiet moments are not light banter but allusions to a prior history that the characters share. Much of what we learn about Wick over the course of the film, and its sequels, is about what he used to do, with the clear indication that this is who he used to be.

The distinction between what he does and who he is is important. If John Wick was only an assassin, especially an assassin working for criminal elements, he would hardly be a sympathetic character. Instead, he is a retired assassin. He is, as Tarasov’s chronicle reveals, more than what he does, which was revealed to him when he met his soon-to-be-wife.

We know from the chronicle, and comments made by other characters, that John Wick was very good at this job. And so, having been a man of action for a very long time, Wick discovers love and retires. And then he loses his wife, who leaves behind a living memory of her in the dog, which Tarasov’s son proceeds to kill, initiating the chain of events, and by that I mean mostly a series of action choreographies, that resolve when everyone, well pretty much, is dead. The movie, the first one anyway, ends with something of a coda, with Wick finding another dog and, having killed the people who killed the memory of his wife, staggers into the distance with a replacement memory that will, it is suggested, perhaps allow him some peace.

The parallels to Reeves’ own history are, of course, quite compelling, with the man behind John Wick having lost a partner and, if not retiring, at least being retiring, or reticent, in general. And so, at least in the case of the first film, one wondered if Keeves wasn’t himself working through things and, perhaps, seeking to put his action-figure days behind him.

In featuring a reluctant protagonist, especially a reluctant protagonist who was once a man of action called into action against his will, the film comfortably fulfills a fairly standard American trope, which has featured in everything from The Equalizer to Gran Torino — though Eastwood perhaps did it best in Unforgiven.

The strength of the reluctant hero narrative is in his knowing the price that must be paid for violence. With that knowledge, the audience understands, and is in fact thankful for, the burden that the hero takes up. We cheer him on because he is doing the dirty work for us — the other side of this particular trope is either individuals or organizations that do such “wet work” despite a lack of gratitude, which featured more in the 70s and 80s than in the present moment.

The resolution is for the reluctant hero to retire once again, as happens at the end of John Wick. That feels right. And it felt right up until John Wick 2 was announced. And then JW3. And now JW4. When you begin to wonder “exactly how many times is this guy going to get dragged out of retirement?” or, at least, “exactly how unkillable is this guy?” At some point, John Wick ceases to be a reluctant hero and is simply the man he used to be, a relentless killing machine, and this is a far less sympathetic character. And yet, as the sequels make clear, there are sympathies to be had.

In all honesty, writing about film is something I have only ever done offline. Reading John DeVore on various film, as well as his take on various facets of American culture, have perhaps made me braver than I should be to try to add to the conversation.