In a world that’s rich with burly action stars the size of mountains, and faces that are equally deadpan and akin to a slapped arse, to see heroes be reluctant, emotional and haunted by grief is a refreshing injection into the genre.
This has been touched on in the past, but never in such a way that Chad Stahelski’s John Wick trilogy does.
It pays a remarkable amount of attention to the trials and strife John endures to serve as motivation for the guns-a-blazing raucous action you see on screen, but the thing that makes Wick so special is his rejection of the action hero stereotypes.
The first thing to notice about his character is how willing and open he is to opportunities to mourn, and give in to his feelings.
The opening movie of the trilogy begins shortly after John’s wife Helen passes away, with whom he shared a life that he deems ‘better than he deserved’, and his grief is clear. He rejects the action hero’s brazen masculinity by allowing himself to cry for his wife, and genuinely care for the puppy she left him, Daisy.
His furious vengeance plays alongside his desperation for a moment to grieve, as it is stolen from him by the thugs who kill Daisy in the chaotic robbery. His fresh wounds are assaulted (as they are in a literal sense later on), and while he carries his angst on the outside as a means of protecting himself, his vulnerabilities are clear to the audience.
His love for Helen is, after all, what spares Winston during the climax of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum as he convinces John to not die a murderer, but a man who was loved by his wife. His sincere care and adoration are what brought him into the adventure we see, and it’s what keeps him from truly losing everything.
The John Wick trilogy gradually becomes more and more wild as it goes on, and one thing radiates throughout the tonal shifts it adopts – Keanu Reeves’ physicality.
Wick is precise, focused and lightning-fast, but when injured he hulks, shoulders forward. Different to the Neo of his past, Reeves’ movement sees him limp onward like an wounded bear, which not only shows Wick as far from indestructible, but also how much contempt he feels for the lifestyle he’s had to return to, and how much he wishes he could move on from his beastly kill-or-be-killed senses that he’s had to adopt in a life he now feels he doesn’t belong to.
He shuffles on, shoulders hunched, defying the inexterminable resilience an awful lot of action heroes live by. Wick is far from the Fast and Furious brand of burly quip dispensers who have seemingly tapped the fountain of youth, and fight off loss and injury by means of a legal contract. His vulnerabilities are both mental and physical, making him easy to connect to for an audience that would no doubt normally struggle to connect to a man chased by the largest network of assassins in the world.
Aside from his personal attachments, John is separated from his counterparts by his becoming of death, and his reluctance to do so.
Throughout John Wick: Chapter 2 his presence is feared wherever he goes in the assassin underworld (yet equally idolised, as seen by assassin fanboy Zero in Chapter 3: Parabellum), and the bells that toll as he approaches Gianna D’antonio’s coronation party to take her life only cement this.
As the bounty on John’s head and his body count escalates, it becomes increasingly clear that John has embodied death, the one thing that he hates so dearly and that returned him to the underworld in the first place.
John Wick stands out amongst the sea of burly, jokey action heroes for his compassion, his destructibility and his real sense of morals.
He doesn’t do any of the things he does because it’s fun – he does it because he has no other choice, and nothing left. It’s hard to connect to mountainous men crushing heads with their bare hands, but to a man who just loves his wife and is severely wronged, It’s certainly easier.
The heart of John Wick is bared more than we’re used to seeing in blaring action movies, and it’s what makes Chad Stahelski’s trilogy a staple of the genre for the modern age.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra HD and Steelbook.