To look back on the first of the John Wick saga is to see a franchise in its humble beginning. Viewing the 2014 film feels like a new experience after a globe touring odyssey leaving behind a sea of bodies in the wake of the Baba Yaga. Muted blues color a routine morning. The minimalist, post-modern Wick estate is where we are introduced to the stoic trafficker of death.
A Saga Is Born
Through the biomes we've traveled It feels like playing the levels of IO Interactive's HITMAN. The Byzantine-fashioned Sacré Coeur of Paris, the dank catacombs of Rome, and the amazing breadth of the Moroccan sands carry us through the saga. But through the famed night clubs of Berlin, to the neon drenched streets of Osaka, it all began in New York’s concrete wasteland.
For a series that evolves fully into what can be classified as neon-noire, the first entry is strikingly cool in tone and color. It begins at a pedestrian pace, perfectly suited to let your guard down going into a theater in 2014 expecting some simple Keanu action. The hook is indeed simple enough as we are taken through the death of Helen Wick by flashbacks and watch John live in near solitude with his new beagle puppy. Wife, car, puppy, all ripped away. It’s quite effective. This overture to the symphony of bullets we know will commence feels very grounded compared to the heights traveled in later films.
All we know is what is told to us through small bits of expository dialogue. The mythos of The Baba Yaga, his beloved dame, the night of his “impossible task” given in return as an out to the life, all told like stories by the fireplace. It carries a level of mystique that is unique to the first film due to so much being left to interpretation as to what this world could be. The High Table as a concept is drip fed into the story just enough to gather an idea, but cloaked in enough secrecy to invite deeper exploration in other films.
It isn't until John Wick: Chapter 2 that the curtain is pulled back a bit on the High Table and its politics are made more explicit. The gold coins seen sporadically in the first chapter along with the Continental and its amenities are fleshed out, as the rules and the economy of this shadow world are explained.
Comic Book Noir
In a world governed by bullets, the constraints of the High Table act as a blind, if not faceless, hand of justice. The only instance a non Table authority figure is ever seen on screen is Jimmy the police officer, who makes an appearance in the first two films turning the most blind eye to raging crime scenes. “Evening Jimmy. Noise Complaint?” This is where distance with reality grows as the series begins to find its identity and we near closer to a comic book-like world.
And this world will be paired with comic book-like villains. From a mute assassin, to a blind swordsman, bullet sponging sumo wrestlers, and in the most Penguin-like villain, a poker playing club kingpin who’s inhaler activates a second stage boss round.
The shift in narrative tone of the series, however apparent, is one of harmony. A gradual escalation of John Wick’s self-dooming prophecy, condemned by his own actions to a cycle of death. By Parabellum we are all lawyers in the practice of shadow law. With the introduction of a character like The Adjudicator, we see these laws upheld with cultish penalty and investigative detail as everyone who had lend Wick their aid is dealt a punishment symbolic of their offense.
The visual experience of John Wick is fluid energy, a marathon of constant movement. This trademark choreography and uninterrupted shot sequences from director Chad Stahelski that has become the soul of the John Wick series reached its zenith in its twilight act.
Sequences in Chapter 4 are intoxicating in their sheer runtime and continuity of action. After murdering NBA center Boban Marjonovic with a library book (in an homage to Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Enter The Dragon) you have to get creative. Would you like to see Mr. Wick dabble in some nunchucks? Here you go. How about bows and arrows and samurai swords engaged in the modern world? Or maybe, literally flip all of this on its head and experience the film as a top-down arcade shooter with dragon’s breath rounds? Say no more.
In a film rich with homage to classic works, John Wick: Chapter 4 blends together so many genre motifs. What begins in a Blade Runner-like neo-noir on the neon drenched streets of Osaka gives way to an Akira Kurosawa-esque samurai duel between Caine and Koji, skillfully setting up a potential spin off in the Wick universe centering on Akira avenging her father. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
And from the school of the eastern film to the western, with Mr. Nobody and his six-shooter stylings echoing Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name. The final act culminating in a duel is reminiscent of the finale to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
The purest indulgence of reference in the movie is payed in honor to a film that defines the very meaning of cult-classic, 1979’s The Warriors. The close up shot of the radio DJ letting all the boppers know of the seek and destroy ordered on John Wick is almost a shot for shot reference to the Nowhere To Run montage of the streetcore classic. Almost brought a tear to my eye.
Quod Debitum Sanguine
Such is the Latin phrase engraved on the oath markers, "that debt is in blood." Although the body count seems infinite through our journey the thread of introspection in the writing is never lost. Each chapter of the series offers an overarching theme.
Chapter One - Revenge
The first entry is the clearest cut. It is revenge, simple and raw, that drags John back into the depths of his former world. Much is made of his spite for his own actions, the fire in his screams as he unearths the tools of his trade. But the debt he is due is one he cannot let go.
Chapter Two - Betrayal
When Santino D’Antonio reemerges in John’s life in Chapter Two he reminds him of his help on the night of his impossible task, and presents the blood marker signifying his debt. Santino’s request is an act of betrayal in itself, asking John to assassinate his sister in a power play that is too personal for his own hands. The core of John’s rampage here is driven by Santino’s immediate double cross of John when he places a bounty on his head.
When John catches up to him in the Continental he betrays its rules by shedding Santino's blood, setting the stage for the next films.
Chapter 3 - Consequences
“There is no John out there. No happy man with a normal life. There is only John Wick: the killer.”
Beginning on the run in the literal sense, Parabellum begins in the immediate fallout of Chapter 2. He reaps the seeds he has sewn from where he last left off. By giving into his urges and killing Santino he did what he felt was his only moral option. "Finished it." But in doing so he doomed himself to a cycle of death.
Chapter 4 - Acceptance
“Those who cling to life, die. And those who cling to death, live.”
This slightly altered quote of Japanese warlord Uesugi Kenshin is uttered by both in the final duel between Cain and John. They both come to accept the nature of their place. To live in their world they must accept the path of killing, and their survival will always be sure. Their lasting peace, however, can only be found in accepting death.
In fact, The Elder prophetically states this to John at the beginning of the film. “None of us can escape who we are, and no one escapes the Table. And the only way John Wick will ever have freedom or peace, now or ever, is in death.”
But this is John Wick, and if he is to go gentle into that good night it will be on his own terms.
Remember To Die
The trials of John Wick are Sisyphean in their futility. His boulder proves infinite, even mirroring the Greek myth in killing his way up the mountainous stairway just to be sent back down to the first cement step with a roundhouse kick.
By the end of John Wick: Chapter 4 he succeeds in lifting his obligations to the High Table. As he staggers his wounded frame down the steps of the Sacré Coeur, stripping his belt and ammo pouches, he is at his most free yet his most vulnerable. In a moment that acts almost as a second for us all to contemplate all that has been lost, and all those who he has taken, he sits down beneath the sunrise. "Helen" whispers through his lips one last time as he clings to the thought of her. “Those who cling to life, die.” And so in the warmth of her memory he finds his eternal peace, finally confronting his mortality. Memento Mori.