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How the John Wick franchise fits into the gory tradition of the revenge movie genre


At the beginning of the first John Wick movie, the tools of his deadly profession lie buried under concrete, buried next to Wick’s worst self – the ruthless hit man who was only able to retire through his happy marriage.

Fans of the series know what happened next. To get revenge, he destroys his vault with a sledgehammer, revealing an arsenal of weapons. The real John Wick is back. A bloodbath ensues.

The carnage continues in John Wick 4, currently in theaters. The franchise owes a lot to the acclaimed action film director from Hong Kong John Woo and the “gun-fu” fighting style are films established, which combines slick gun skills with kung fu.

Revenge stories share well-known tropes: a murder, a ghost, madness, a stronger enemy and a vengeful hero. Each Wick movie honors these elements individually, while at the same time incorporating them into Wick itself. Murder is Wick’s business. Motivated by murders, he commits them as revenge. Often.

Visited by the “ghost” of his dead wife (videos of her on his phone), he also functions as a ghost in the minds of his enemies, the mythical Baba Yaga of their nightmares. Pushed to the limit, others believe he is crazy. He is both the vengeful hero and the stronger enemy.

Wick is all these things in turn, for by seeking his own vengeance, he becomes the object of the vengeance of others.

Revenge and Consequence

Keanu Reeves’ performance in the first Wick film is never more powerful than when, tied to a chair by his captors, he roars the righteous justifications of his vengeance. Wick doesn’t threaten revenge, he promises as he shouts, “You can give me your son or die screaming beside him!” Everything that follows in subsequent films is a consequence – the price Wick pays for seeking vengeance in the first place.

Revenge stories are deeply satisfying because they allow us to imagine the retribution we could mete out for our own pain – how we could right perceived wrongs if only we had the courage to act. We applaud steel heroes and calculate the cost later. The cost is always high.

The John Wick saga reaps Western tropes and begins much like Clint Eastwood’s unforgiven (1992) does, with the mute burial of a woman and the hesitant retrieval of guns. William Munny of Eastwood is not out for revenge. Munny is the servant of vengeance, an assassin, who has been taken out of retirement by others. The grim events that follow are bad enough, but it isn’t until Munny’s friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) is murdered that Munny exacts a terrible revenge herself.

Read more: Revenge: The neuroscience of why it feels good in the moment but may be a bad idea in the long run

The beautiful remake of True Grit (2010) by the Coen brothers returns to the theme. Once again, the shooter is a servant (Jeff Bridges’ Marshal Cogburn), this time of 14-year-old Mattie Rose’s (Hailee Steinfeld) revenge. Mattie enlists Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer and pays a terrible price. She loses an arm to a snakebite, leads the life of a spinster with no hope of family, and in the film’s bleak denouement arrives too late to even thank Cogburn for saving her life.

Wick is also too late to rescue or thank Marcus (Willem Defoe) in movie one, loses a finger in movie three, and has no hope of family throughout the series.

In Christopher Nolan’s puzzle film Memento (2000), Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is the amnesiac prisoner of a revenge story he barely understands. Nolan’s confusing circular design has Leonard haunt himself, both as perpetrator and avenger, in perhaps the surest cinematic exploration of the futility of revenge.

In the John Wick series, the story may be linear, but the cyclical, repetitive nature of revenge is amply demonstrated, confirming John Ford’s quote that “vengeance proves its own executioner”.

Revenge as propellant

In Keanu Reeves, Wick had an established star around which The Matrix Trilogy was already built. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) had already confirmed that revenge was an industrial propellant of sorts, as they had the ability to launch or relaunch great careers like those of Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson.

Mad Max became so successful that it outlived its star, a role other actors have since flexed their muscles in. The Taken series neatly pre-empted the revenge plot exhaustion problem by kidnapping, rather than killing, Bryan Mills’ (Neeson) family members. After all, family members can always be kidnapped again. They are in Taken 2, before Taken 3 brings the series to a climax.

Read more: ‘Rape revenge’ movies are changing: They now focus on the women, rather than their fathers

In these ways, revenge is taken between protagonist and antagonist, from movie to movie, like a baton, like in the John Wick series. The achievement of the series is that it synthesizes its many influences while at the same time confirming its originality.

The public has responded. By welding his diverse, multicultural world to the revenge story, director Chad Stahelski (amazing martial artist and former stunt double/coordinator for Reeves) has built a billion-dollar blockbuster as dominating as Wick himself.

At the end of John Wick 4, Wick’s fate is uncertain. While determined, the Wickiverse continues to expand. Soon the baton will be passed in the spin-off film ballerina. Now in post-production, it takes place between John Wick 3 and John Wick 4. Reeves will play a supporting role. Only an epic, deeply personal revenge story can surely shake Reeves up again.

If there is a John Wick 5 it will only be because success is the best revenge, and just as sure, revenge is the best success.

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