Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
“The infernal serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from heaven — “
John Wick. John. Wick. The man, the myth, the terrifying legend. I’ve always loved a good revenge story: The Count of Monte Cristo, Hamlet, The Crow, to name a few. There’s all sorts of perfectly valid reasons for revenge, whether it’s because someone killed your father and stole your crown or you got wrongfully sent to a dirty French prison for 14 year. The senseless murder of an innocent puppy is definitely one in my book. Still, that a movie about a former hitman emerging from retirement after the brutal killing of his dog has become such a wildly successful franchise almost defies logic — though, for me, it all comes down to two things:
Keanu Reeves and the story of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
John has many names. Baba Yaga. The Boogeyman. He’s also called the Devil by some, which inevitably got me thinking about the Milton of it all. Reeves plays Wick, a former mob hitman whose wife, his reason for leaving behind his old life of murder and mayhem, dies after a long illness. Before her death, she arranges for a thoughtful gift — a dog to keep Wick company, delivered a few days after the funeral. During a home invasion to steal Wick’s bitchin’ ride (a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1), the son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian kingpin and his friends horribly kill the dog. Already, we can start to understand his plight. It’s a real sympathy-for-the-devil type of situation, but John Wick doesn’t need you to feel sorry for him.
“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost: the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome;
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.”
As infamous as the devil himself, John has quite the reputation built up when we first meet him; it has already grown to near-mythic proportions such as once killing a man with a pencil. People talk about Wick like he’s a ghost, and he acts like one. The way he uses the darkness to move within it so that you never see him until he’s right on top of you. He’s a nightmare dressed like an even bigger nightmare in a fetching three-piece suit. Can I just say hats off to the very female gaze of these movies? Within 30 minutes of the first film, we get to watch Keanu, in full brood, pounding out concrete in an undershirt with a sledgehammer, as well as a tasteful shower scene. That’s not to mention the way the man fills out a suit. One of the more female-friendly action films there is, John Wick knows its appeal without cheapening it. Wick is like Batman meets James Bond without the gross womanizing and a Frank Castle sense of justice whose entire motivation stems from the loss and memory of love.
Reeves is also a genuinely great actor whose love for movies is the most pure, his body of work suggesting a versatility and sincerity for which he doesn’t always get credit. Not everybody has the range to perfectly embody the spirit of a lovable time-traveling doofus as well as that of a lean, mean, killing machine, stalking through the neon-lit nightclub as if it were a slow seduction to a sexy beat with his murder face on. Reeves plays his character with a vulnerability that’s entirely unique, one who always does right by his four-legged friends and gives off this very “tired man who didn’t want to come out of retirement” energy in every scene. At what point does James Bond finally get too old for this shit?
Wick hunts down and ruthlessly dispatches every person responsible to a satisfying conclusion, saving the kingpin’s son for last who stupidly goes out saying “It’s just a fucking dog.” We were always rooting for you, Theon Greyjoy; why do you continue to make such bad life choices? Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my own dog. I’ve seen John Wick countless times, and still always skip That Scene, but you know what? I’d go on a revenge spree, too. More symbolically, Wick is getting revenge for stealing the last shred of hope he had to live in peace after his wife’s untimely death. The first film concludes with a deceptively happy ending that even includes a new dog. But as we soon find out, for John Wick, there is no more peace to be had.
“Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage, by force or guile, eternal war,
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and, in the excess of joy
Sole resigning, holds the tyranny of heaven.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 is all about the fall. Right off the heels of the first film, we watch Wick come for his stolen car within the first 10 minutes with the same bad-bitch energy as Edmond Dantès first arriving in Paris, and his old life isn’t done with him yet. When Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes knocking on John’s door bearing a marker with John’s blood and asking for a favor, John refuses to honor it and gets his house blown up for his troubles. A marker is some sort of IOU in the underworld that isn’t exactly sanitary but apparently very binding.
Please, just let the poor man take a nap.
Under duress, John agrees to honor the marker and travel to Rome to kill Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini), Santino’s sister, who now occupies a seat at the High Table, sort of the assassin underworld’s board of trustees, that Santino wants for himself. Every family’s got their issues. When asked if he fears damnation, John answers “Yes” with a painful honesty that speaks volumes to the way Reeves commits to this character. As remorseless and impersonal as he can be in the face of death, Reeves puts a real warmth to Wick’s disposition that, despite all odds, makes him likable, and the way he wields his grief like a weapon instead of burying it under excessive machismo makes him even more appealing. Wick might wear a bulletproof suit jacket, but his heart is on his sleeve — something that sets him apart from literally every other big male action star of whom I can think. Wick is a poor, lonely soul in the midst of his grief who just wanted to be loved, and in the absence of that, he chooses vengeance.
Santino seals his own fate when he stabs the devil in the back. John had gotten enough of a taste of “the other side” to really embrace it before it was taken from him, and he won’t take the loss lying down. Like Satan gathering his allies, John makes the journey back to New York — leaving a trail of bodies in his wake and enlisting the help of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who prophetically calls this his descent into hell. As Satan lamented, while chained to the fiery lake, that though he had been expelled from Heaven he should not lose his will to resist, John recommitted himself to vengeance, a dish best served cold and under a rain of heavy gunfire. Since Milton’s poem focuses on Satan’s rejection of God’s laws, it’s only fitting that, by the end of the second film, John Wick has had enough of the High Table’s tyranny. The devil is here to stay, and John’s final act of rebellion is to break the rules of non-violent sanctuary for assassins when they’re inside the Continental Hotel — shooting Santino on its sacred grounds and thereby earning himself a one-way ticket straight to hell.
“So farewell hope. And with hope farewell fear.
Farewell, remorse. All good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good. By thee at least
Divided empire with heaven’s King I hold,
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As Man ere long, and this new world, shall know.”
Where we begin in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Wick has been excommunicated after violating the rules of the Continental and defying the High Table by killing two of their own — on the run for his life with only an hour before the contract on his head opens up in a city filled to the brim with assassins looking to collect on his bounty. Beaten, broken and temporarily defeated, cast out of the only world to which he still belonged. He’s lost his wife, his house, one dog, his exclusive hitman membership card that had great benefits. Everything he had left has been stripped from him.
The mythology of the criminal underworld Wick operates in is weird as hell and insanely fun, essentially an entire service industry built around and catered to only one kind of business. Even in an amoral world full of contract killers, a code of ethics has to exist — although it’s one enforced by a near-omnipotent hierarchy called the High Table under whom everyone operating lives in fear and service. There’s no real good versus evil — everyone’s just different shades of bad — but there’s still certainly plenty of righteousness to go around. The Continental, while hardly a true Garden of Eden, is in many ways a paradise to a certain type of people in the business, and they have ballistics sommeliers. It’s like Candy Land but for hired killers.
The influence of Greek myth is just as noticeable as Milton’s, especially with the constant symbolic use of gold coins and references to the Underworld. Paradise Lost itself has a very Homeric feel to it. “The path to paradise begins in Hell,” the Director (Anjelica Huston) says to Wick, when he comes to her for safe passage by boat to Casablanca like a hero embarking on a quest for Olympus. The reference to Dante is a heavy-handed metaphor for Wick’s journey into Hell, and it’s not the only one; someone looking to collect on John’s bounty quotes Dante right before Wick just as symbolically breaks the man’s jaw and neck with a library book on Russian folklore. Wick has already landed in Hell, and now he seeks to bring the fight elsewhere while all who have helped him receive various forms of punishment from the High Table for their crimes.
“The discord which befell, and war in heaven
Among the angelic powers, and the deep fall
Of those too high aspiring, who rebelled
With Satan; he who envies now they state,
Who now is plotting how he may seduce
Thee also from obedience, that, with him
Bereaved of happiness, thou mayest partake
His punishment, eternal misery;
Which would be all his solace and revenge,
As a despite done against the Most High,
Thee once to gain companion of his woe.”
The man John seeks in the desert is the Elder (Said Taghmaoui), someone said to be above the High Table — basically God. The Elder remarks on how lost John has become and offers him a deal to complete a task that will reinstate him but will also leave him forever bound to the High Table. Sort of like how if Satan had just said he was sorry, God probably would have taken him back. But there’s no way in heaven or hell that would ever happen. John is left with a choice: Live “free” under the control of the High Table or take his chances as a man marked for death. The autonomy of the Garden and of the Continental are similarly for show, paradise to the naked eye but not without rules that one must follow or forever face banishment.
Really makes you want to stick it to the man.
Satan’s conclusion that it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” comes at the very beginning of Paradise Lost, and by the end, John is done serving. He would rather die “free” than die a servant of the High Table, so he makes his stand inside the Continental with his longtime patron, Winston (Ian McShane) in an all-out, guns-out battle set to Vivaldi that brings to mind the line from Good Omens about Hell having all of the best composers. Heaven’s supposed to have all the best choreographers, but seeing the way Wick can move, I somehow doubt that. One of my favorite things about the John Wick movies is their fight choreography, a seamless blend of the physicality of martial arts and a barrage of ammo rounds. In Chapter 2 it feels like an elaborate and deadly dance, over the top ridiculous but amazing to watch. A good choreographed fight can be just as beautiful as a perfectly executed ballet number. The third film has swordplay on motorcycles and insane knife fights reminiscent of the best parts in the third season of Netflix’s Daredevil.
And John Wick himself? After three movies, it’s not clear if he can even be killed. The amount of times he’s shot or stabbed is definitely more than a hand’s worth, and each instance barely slows him down. How many times can the man get mortally wounded before enough is enough? The answer seems to be an infinite amount, even surviving getting shot multiple times before falling off a building — which only lends itself to the larger mythic proportions that surrounds John’s terrifyingly near-inhuman existence. Milton often describes how Satan and his allies cannot be so easily killed, that they can be severely wounded and even dismembered — John only loses a finger, but still — but they can’t die for they are not as frail as man, and neither is John Wick. Despite appearing to be no mere mortal here, I do appreciate that these movies aren’t afraid to make him bleed; in fact it’s weirder to not see him constantly covered in blood.
“A greater power
Now ruled him, punished in the shape he sinned,
According to his doom. He would have spoke,
But hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue
To forked tongue. For now were all transformed
Alike, to serpents all, as accessories
To his bold riot.”
The victory is short-lived. Just as Angels come down to the Garden to bar anyone from entering, the High Table shows its hand. In Paradise Lost, Satan returns to Pandemonium and becomes a snake, punished in the shape that he had sinned in when he convinced Eve to eat the apple. Likewise, as the High Table seems too powerful to defeat, John is reduced to the monster everyone says he is and that he fought so hard to shed — beaten down again with the fresh sting of new betrayal at the third installment’s conclusion.
Here’s hoping John and his rebel Bowery angels really give ’em hell in the fourth.
Every John Wick film is an uncomplicated good time that embraces its capacity to be absurd, worth it alone for the undeniable combination of Reeves’ meticulous athleticism and captivating emotional performance with a grace and fury that’s breathtaking to behold (when he’s not playing with puppies). Everything has a price in Chad Stahelski’s high-velocity action films that feel like instant cult classics, painting the violence with an intimacy that’s hard to deny as Reeves’ overwhelming broadness looms over the bodies he pummels into submission.
Honestly, I just love to watch him work.