May 2019

Arts & Letters

Killer instincts: The ‘John Wick’ franchise

By Shane Danielsen
Keanu Reeves hones his stardom in the hyperreal violence of an assassin’s tale

Eleven years ago I met a killer. Not a murderer; someone whose profession was killing. Who did it for a living. It was in Seoul, at a services bar in Itaewon, close to the American military base. We were both in love with the same woman, and I went down there one afternoon to sort the matter out.

If a piano had been playing, it would have stopped abruptly when I entered; the only person in the place not in fatigues, I was instantly conspicuous. But the jukebox kept going, blasting “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, so I sat down opposite him and we ordered some food and began to talk. After a few minutes two of his buddies sauntered over. “All good here, bro?” He nodded and they returned to their places at the bar, where they sat smirking at me with a sort of ambient menace.

He spoke softly and held himself very straight and still. His movements were precise, as if he were intent upon eliminating every inessential gesture. Originally a marine, he’d recently been re-assigned to Special Ops, where he conducted what sounded an awful lot like targeted assassinations. Already he had the professional hit man’s distance, the requisite emotional disconnect from his targets. (Did he ever lose any sleep over it? I asked him. He shook his head. “These dudes – they’re not good guys. No one’s going to miss them.”)

Our issue, he explained, was mostly about timing. He’d been dating the woman a year earlier, pretty seriously, but then he’d been moved to active duty. Now he was back – but suddenly I was on the scene? What was that about? I said there was no point in fighting over her, since he’d undoubtedly win any such contest, and he nodded. “I could kill you right now,” he said calmly, “with that ashtray. Or with your glass.” He pointed to it. “I wouldn’t even have to get out of my seat.”

I didn’t doubt it for one second. Real proficiency, when you encounter it, is unmistakable. It never raises its voice, because it doesn’t have to. I explained that she preferred me, and he said he knew – she’d told him the same thing – so he was stepping aside. He just wanted to meet me, he said, wanted to see what I was like.

I think of him sometimes, wondering where in the world he may be and what he might be doing, and never more so than when I watch one of the John Wick movies, my favourite film franchise of the past decade. They’re about a trained killer as well, a ruthless professional who, like my friend from the bar, speaks so mildly one might almost think him benign. Almost.


Like many a film trilogy, John Wick began with a remarkably simple set-up: our hero (Keanu Reeves, in a role that may wind up defining him as much as The Matrix has) is living a quiet life in the suburbs of New Jersey, mourning his recently deceased wife and looking after the puppy she bequeathed him in her final days, when his home is broken into one night by some Russian Thugs™. They want his car, a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 – in fairness, a pretty covetable ride – and when he doesn’t give it to them they cold-cock him, wreck his place, and take it.

They also kill the puppy.

This, as it turns out, is a big mistake.

What follows is a saga of revenge that makes Death Wish look like The Muppet Movie – a trail of murder and carnage that crosses the river into New York, totals said vehicle (as well as numerous others) and ends with 77 people dead. John Wick, we soon discover, is not only a former assassin, but a technician nonpareil – a killer so consummate, he’s feared even among his peers … of whom there turn out to be surprisingly many. The deeper we go into the John Wick Universe the further we recede from our own, until we find ourselves in a kind of parallel world, a realm populated exclusively by highly skilled, nattily dressed executioners.

Released in 2014, that first film was gritty and small-scale, a comparatively low-budget (US$20 million) action flick distinguished from similar Jason Statham and Liam Neeson vehicles by its rigorous, almost monomaniacal purity. It was all about one thing, the avenging of a single slight, and it fulfilled that mission with relentless brio. The sequel, functionally titled John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), was something else again – wilder, grander, more baroque. Now there’s a third instalment, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (in cinemas May 16), bigger again, and the momentum shows no sign of slowing: a TV spin-off is also forthcoming.

So what changed? Only that, somewhere between the first two films, screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski seemed to grasp the untapped potential of their creation. They reset the creative team, hiring a new cinematographer, production designer and editor (Dan Laustsen, Kevin Kavanaugh and Evan Schiff, respectively), and leaned into the series’ mythology. Usually this is a recipe for disaster, but Stahelski and Kolstad understood both their product and their audience. With twice the budget of the original, they upped the kill count (128, this time) and amplified the weirdness, broadening their bench of ancillary grotesques (Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, Jason Mantzoukas’s Tick-Tock Man) and taking us deeper into the workings of the Continental, the luxury hotel that serves as a den for the many wolves of Wick-world.

There’s a giddy, delirious joy to their world-building – in particular, their vision of New York as an assassin’s playground, a rainy, neon-drenched purgatory in which ordinary citizens go about their business either oblivious to or determinedly averting their eyes from the wholesale slaughter taking place around them. (A metaphor for America, I suspect, and the willed blindness of many of its inhabitants to the increasingly extravagant misdeeds of their government.) There are no police anywhere, no hint of any authority whatsoever apart from the High Table, the shadowy, seemingly omnipresent guild of assassins that regulates and notarises the taking of lives. Yet the film convincingly conveys the sense of an entire social order with its own particular codes, rituals and traditions, humming just beneath the noise of everyday reality.

Chapter 2 ended with its hero being declared “excommunicado”, having killed a rival within the agreed-upon safe space of the Continental – a violation of one of the High Table’s cardinal rules. Chapter 3 picks up about 45 minutes later, with a bounty on Wick’s head and his immunity about to be revoked, making him a lucrative target for any fellow assassin with the skill, or the hubris, to take him down. “Parabellum” is drawn from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war), and as that 10-dollar word might imply, this instalment sees the franchise entering its rococo period. The sets are bigger, the fights longer. Everything is faster, harder, more kinetic. And a shade more self-important.

It’s strange to use the word “joyous” about a genre of filmmaking that treats human life so cheaply, but these are in fact surprisingly joyous movies. Despite their violence (which has become steadily more graphic), I often find myself chuckling softly during their set pieces, tickled by their outlandish invention, their masterful staging, their exact and exacting choreography. Stahelski – originally Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix – not only has a strong compositional sense but also understands something clowns such as Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann never will: that fragmenting action into a series of rapid cuts – be it a chase sequence (à la the former) or a dance number (the latter) – can only diminish its effect. The power of a scene is lost when the viewer is struggling to piece together the physical space in which it’s occurring. You forfeit both tension (because you don’t know precisely who is where) and beauty (the calligraphic movement of bodies within a frame).

For this reason, Stahelski is careful to let as much as possible play out in a single, unbroken shot, cutting only when absolutely necessary. And with each successive instalment, he’s set himself greater technical challenges – having fight scenes play out against giant video screens filled with abstract patterns, for example, or among reflective surfaces flooded by random lights. Thus making it nearly impossible to match-cut between different takes.

But this franchise’s greatest asset is its star – and that’s not a word I use lightly. So few actors today are stars in the traditional sense, partly because the industry has changed, but mostly because performance styles are less theatrical; a good actor, these days, is expected to disappear into a role. But there’s nothing remotely naturalistic about Reeves’ acting, just as there wasn’t about Humphrey Bogart’s or Jimmy Stewart’s, and so, like those greats, he’s always playing more or less the same character … which is to say, a variation upon himself.

Now 54, Reeves remains uncannily, almost supernaturally fit. But he also puts in the effort: there are several videos on YouTube of him undertaking weapons training for this role, and they’re fascinating, both for his humility and for the careful attention he pays – he appears genuinely pleased to acquire and perfect a new skill. And all that dedication pays off: when John Wick reloads a semi-automatic, or hurls a knife, the gesture is thrilling in the same way that Baryshnikov dancing was thrilling – as an expression of discipline turned to effortless mastery. Most of all, this mechanical proficiency serves as a necessary counterweight to the cartoonish unreality of the action. Bloodied but unyielding, Wick represents a fixed point of physical integrity – the steadfast axis around which a whole world of mayhem turns.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Illustration

The government’s appeal to self-interest groups

The Liberal Party has little left but pitches to the hip pocket

Illustration

Silence in Christchurch

The Islamic prison chaplain from Goulburn who rushed to New Zealand

Image of Michael Jackson and James Safechuck.

Starstruck: Reckoning with Michael Jackson’s legacy

What do we do with the music after ‘Leaving Neverland’?

Illustration

Terri Butler’s rise through the rancour

The Queensland Labor MP on the hustings and the hating


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Film

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Michael Fassbender in ’The Killer’, sitting in a room cross-legged on a mat, wearing black gloves

Into the streaming void: ‘The Killer’ and ‘They Cloned Tyrone’

David Fincher’s stylish pulp and Juel Taylor’s SF-adjacent satire are the latest riches to be taken for granted in the ever-ready, abundant world of Netflix

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality