In 1895, Thomas Edison and director Alfred Clark worked together in The Execution of Mary Stuart. This short historical film features the first use of a special effect, which was used to portray the beheading of Mary, Queen of the Scots. The history of cinema has been filled with representations of violence ever since. How that violence has been presented, however, has changed with every generation of filmmakers.
Violence has often been used as a tool for filmmakers to protest the society of their times. Take, for example, the ultraviolent world of the 80s action films. Movies like Robocop painted a bleak landscape of a future where the world has fallen victim to a culture of drugs, gangs, and all-around depravity; a cruel world like that demanded equally cruel brutality, something that Robocop delivered in spades.
Our generation of filmgoers demands movies that include more meaningful violence: everyone likes to see a good guy killing hordes of bad guys, but they have to be given a good reason for such carnage. That’s what was so refreshing about 2014’s John Wick, a movie that appealed to gun nuts and dog lovers everywhere.
“Spoiler alert” if you haven’t seen the first John Wick film: John’s path of destruction begins because some thugs killed his dog. As the owner of a beagle myself, the movie spoke to me on a personal level, and it certainly resonated with a massive number of action flick fans, as it quickly became a landmark of pop culture.
Thanks to the success of the first movie, John Wick has become a profitable franchise. So far, there have been three movies starring the professional assassin, each one creating more backstory for the world of killers for hire where John Wick lives. This is both a blessing and a curse, as the series keeps getting increasingly complicated with every new entry.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the latest film in the franchise, released in 2019. Keanu Reeves returns to reprise the role of the assassin with a heart of gold. We learn that the events we’ve seen in the first two movies have happened in just one month; considering that John has killed 299 people on-screen since the first film, that means nearly 10 people a day have died by his hands since the events of the first movie.
Don’t let that amount of bloodshed fool you: violence in the world of John Wick is executed with a certain degree of style and professionalism. Each death in these films feels like an expected side effect of the way of life of a professional assassin: cold and dignified, there’s never a moment when it feels like it’s glorifying violence.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, there’s so much violent content in the world of John Wick that it simply blends in with the rest of the presentation. The only character whose death seems to incite a true emotional reaction from John is that of his dog; he simply pays no mind to the countless goons he kills during his exploits. That sort of nonchalant approach to violence is one of the reasons why the first John Wick was so well-received: it was a simple yet engaging movie, with a concise plot and clear character motivations.
That said, it would be difficult to build an enduring trilogy based on avenging a puppy you inherited from your recently deceased wife. As a result, the following films had to introduce new elements to the mix. And what better way to do it than delving into John’s shady past as the most dangerous killer on the planet.
It sounds logical, but it actually takes away some of the magic that made the first movie feel special. As mentioned before, one of the things that made the original John Wick so good was its simplicity. That straightforwardness is unfortunately somewhat muddled in the sequels. As new characters and plot points get introduced, one can’t help but miss the simpler days of a man who embarks on a quest for revenge because some Russian mobsters executed his cute canine companion.
Granted, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum isn’t a bad movie by any means. In fact, it could be said that it improves on some of the pacing issues that the second film ran into. It’s just that it is becoming more and more evident that the franchise might be close to overstaying its welcome. Now, we have a fourth and a fifth film on the horizon, a TV show coming up, a female-centric spin-off movie, and a crossover— all of them taking place in the same fictional universe.
The third film in the series sees John betrayed by everything and everyone he thought he could trust. Tossed aside by the people he thought were his colleagues, it’s clear that John will have to figuratively fight against the world if he hopes to survive the franchise’s fourth film. And I simply can’t wait.
At the end of the day, even though it might be getting a bit too convoluted for its own good, Chad Stahelski and the rest of the team behind the John Wick films are simply exploiting a tried and true formula that’s kept Hollywood going for decades: violence sells. I.e., We just love seeing people beating the crap out of each other. That’s the reason why names like Schwarzenegger and Stallone hold as much real-estate in our collective cinematic conscience as Spielberg or Kubrick.
The way in which the John Wick series portrays violence is sterilized enough for audiences to enjoy it without remorse. Keanu Reeves is now playing the John Rambo of a new generation: a man with an excessive body count that you nevertheless root for till the very end.
Perhaps we’re nearing a moment in the history of John Wick where we might see a return to what made the first film so thrilling. Whatever the future of the franchise may hold, it’s clear that this Reeves vehicle has raised the bar of violence in movies. Consider giving this franchise a try, especially if you’ve had enough of those nauseous shaky-cam fights and distracting CGI shots. John Wick is pure, undiluted action. A movie that proves that you don’t have to wear spandex to kick ass.
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