With the exceptional reviews pouring in on Rotten Tomatoes for the upcoming third chapter in the John Wick franchise, I was inspired to attempt to illustrate my frustration with the popularity of this series and how it’s contextualized within the broader debate of glamorized violence in the media. The issue of violence in film has been around since the beginning of cinema, and will continue as long as movies exist. There’s a fine line between violence that serves a purpose within a story and violence that exists merely as cynical exploitation. Having only sat through the entirety of John Wick: Chapter 2, I can’t comment on the credibility of the franchise as a whole, yet the distaste I feel toward Chapter 2 can reasonably be applied to the series’ overall function as a hard-R rated action entertainment.
I’m not going to go into a whole tirade against John Wick, action movies, violence, or the people who love and consume such entertainment, but my experience of watching John Wick: Chapter 2 was enlightening in that its pointless, violent excess left me with a sense of apathy that frightened me. None of the violence in the movie is particularly shocking or effective. There’s nothing artful or exciting about it. Nothing sickening or tragic. It simply exists as a means to drive the action. By the 178th time you see Keanu Reeves shoot someone point-blank in the head, it all blurs into one big empty, meaningless spectacle. Because the only thing driving the plot forward is plain-and-simple revenge, and an undefined revenge at best, considering 98 percent of the people Wick kills exist in the movie only to be killed, the violence acts only as a punch-line to a joke that never existed. If the movie doesn’t know or care why these people are getting killed, then why should we? It relies solely on the audience expecting to see Keanu Reeves mow down henchmen who are presumably the bad guys because Reeves is advertised as the hero, and so by default, everyone else must be game for slaughter.
So here we have a movie who’s plot, motivations, and characterizations are all just about transparent, which means the entertainment value relies solely on stylization and overall technical competence. As far as I could tell, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a well-made, solidly directed, expertly choreographed stunt picture. One could say that these movies are great examples to highlight the argument that stunt performers should be recognized in their own category at the Academy Awards. But I have to wonder, and I mean this in the least judgmental or pretentious way, what does the audience get out of this? Are we supposed to marvel at the choreography? Find sympathy in the title character and root for him? Sure the stunt work is good, but the better the movie is at showing countless people be shot, stabbed, maimed, etc., the more murky the film’s point becomes.
None of this post will matter to anyone who loves these movies and that’s okay. I’m not here to say you’re wrong or sick for enjoying this kind of film. I’ll be the first person to check out an exploitation movie after hearing that it’s super gory. John Wick: Chapter 2 belongs on a list of films that, for me, don’t work because the violence is so depersonalized, so perfunctory, so constant and emotionless, that it feels completely and utterly hollow. Take, for example, the Kill Bill films. Tarantino was making the same kind of exploitation fare that John Wick strives to be, except Kill Bill is purposefully over-stylized to the point of high art, it has a fascinating main character with a history and true narrative arc. The movie’s villains are quirky, well-defined personalities with unique relation to the hero. All of these elements work in harmony to justify the excessive violence. You might ask, how about the violence in Saw and other torture porn movies? Isn’t that equally reprehensible? Maybe. But the fact is, violence within the horror genre is a statement used to cause disgust, discomfort, and fear. The best horror films rely on the audience fearing violence against the protagonists, not rooting for it. The Friday the 13th series and other low-rent slasher films do rely on a desire to see violence, typically toward women, but good horror films know the difference between exploitation and taste.
All of this to say I don’t see the justification for the extreme, copious amount of brutal violence in John Wick other than to wet the appetites of jaded fanboys who grew up on too much Grand Theft Auto. At no point does a character pause to consider their actions. There’s no moral quandary involved, no reaction to the chaos except to cause more chaos. It essentially acts as a live-action video game, where the main player racks up points by shooting and killing as many bad guys as possible. What’s at stake? Why does any of this matter? None of these kinds of questions will be answered by this franchise and none of these questions will be asked by the moviegoers who love this series.
My dilemma and inspiration for this long-winded (sorry) rant about John Wick comes from the current 98 percent rating John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum has on Rotten Tomatoes right now. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times writes, “It’s a hard-R live action cartoon, and it is superb, wall-to-wall action entertainment.” Essentially praising the material for the same things I find to be loathsome. Again, this is fine. I’m not saying anyone is wrong for praising this material. But what exactly are we celebrating here? The technical prowess of hundreds of filmmakers and crew members who worked hard in the service of a movie that sees human life as absolutely expendable? Gun violence is the star of the John Wick movies, not Keanu, not great filmmaking. What is there to celebrate here?