Bowling for Keanu


Or, Why I Haven’t Seen John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (Yet)

Content warning: This post contains mentions of gun violence.

As I rose from my seat in the empty cafeteria, my heart pounded. My hearing alternated between the sound of blood rushing in my ears and the electric roar of the fire alarm. Over and over again, my mind replayed that loud “pop pop” sound that had caused me to jump up and ask, “Was that what I think it was?”

Because I have no idea what it actually feels like when you realize that you are caught in a building with an active shooter. I imagine it’s a fluctuating mix of fear and confusion: Where is the nearest exit? Would it be safer to run or to hide? Are those footsteps I hear people frantically escaping or one person methodically walking toward a target?

Eventually, I made my way to a fire exit. Once I was in the stairwell, I saw several faculty members evacuating with the bored expression brought on by an unexpected interruption and realized that it was only a fire drill. Outside, as I struggled to calm myself, I felt silly for thinking that the sound of two doors closing in the hallway outside the cafeteria was a man with a gun coming to senselessly kill anyone he could find. I felt less silly for realizing that in the moments between hearing the popping noise and my evacuation, all I could think of was John Wick.

For the uninitiated, John Wick is a series of action films starring Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who is brought out of retirement when mobsters kill the dog that was given to him by his dying wife. While the premise is silly, the first film was a runaway critical and commercial success, ultimately grossing over $130 million worldwide and meriting an even more beloved sequel. The series’ most recent entry, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, came out this June.

I did not see John Wick or John Wick: Chapter 2 when they were first released. However, as an avid reader of film criticism and someone who is always eager to jump on a pop-cultural bandwagon, I’ve been aware of the hype surrounding the series since it began in 2014. However, it was only recently, with the impending release of Parabellum causing the discussion of the films to reach a fever pitch, that I decided to get caught up on ground zero of the Keanussance.

I will say this: the John Wick films are extraordinary fun. The cinematography is beautiful and evocative, with ornate set designs full of lush neon lights that evoke the futuristic nostalgia of the Blade Runner films. Reeves’s performance is a masterful fusion of balletic stunt coordination and tongue-in-cheek gravitas. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad succeed at the fundamental techniques of good visual storytelling so thoroughly such that they make those techniques seem revolutionary.

That being said, these films are violent. Not just typical action movie violent, but violent in a present, unflinching way. By one estimate, in John Wick, our protagonist kills 77 people alone. In the second film, he dispatches two rival assassins with a pencil in a manner that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look merciful. These sequences are immaculately choreographed and shot in a thoughtful, focused style that has been all but lost in today’s world of quick-cut, CGI-filled brawls fought exclusively between blonde men named Chris.

Moreover, this violence takes place in creative public settings. The first film features a shoot-out in a multi-story nightclub, the second a duel at an EDM concert held among ancient Roman ruins. These locations make for awesome and creative set pieces. However, they are where I first became taken aback. This isn’t because of any deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers. It isn’t even a consequence of the environment in which these films were made. Rather, it’s the reality of living in the world they passed into. Because I couldn’t watch Keanu fight his way through a crowd of dancing civilians amid pumping music and strobe lights and not wonder: Is that what Pulse looked like?

At first, I suppressed these thoughts. Because to point out this comparison is to ruin the fun. The first film came out two years before the nightclub shooting in Orlando, the second months before the tragedy at Las Vegas. The John Wick films aren’t here to provide social commentary. Action films are sport, a modern spin on the gladiatorial fusion of art and entertainment that humans have enjoyed since the dawn of civilization. To look for a nuanced understanding of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction in these films is to attempt to draw blood from a very high-budget stone. 

The films know this. All of the violence in John Wick is presented without judgment. John Wick and his foes are all so skilled at the art of the kill that they never accidentally take out a civilian, at least not that we see. If anything, their ability to kill is a natural wonder, something to be marveled at, if not understood. And John Wick is the most marvelous of them all.

Simply put, John Wick is the paragon of assassins. He outclasses anyone else in his world in his ability to punch, kick, roll, flip, stab, and shoot. And oh, can he shoot. But this is not what makes John Wick the greatest. John Wick is the greatest because he lives by a code. John Wick does not kill out of spite, but out of necessity. John Wick does not like to kill, but he kills because he has to.

Except when he doesn’t. At the end of the John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick finally tracks down Santino D’Antonio, the Italian power player whose blood oath with Wick sparked the carnage that drives the film. Even though Santino and Wick are both on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, a no-killing zone for the assassins of the John Wick universe, Wick shoots Santino point blank in the head. This isn’t because Santino burned down Wick’s home. This isn’t because Santino needed to be killed. This is because Santino has dared to suggest, in his smug Italian accent, that Wick kills not out of duty, but out of compulsion.

(Side Note: There’s something really delicious in this movie about the very European antagonist taunting the American protagonist about the American’s inability to control his murderous desires, only to be murdered as a consequence of those desires, but I’ll let that sliver of unintentional geopolitical commentary simmer for the time being.) 

In shooting Santino, Wick becomes a fugitive to the assassin community. Even worse, in doing so, he affirms his identity, dooming himself to repeat the vicious cycle of violence over and over again. Not that this matters to our hero. “I’ll kill them all,” he growls to Ian McShane after being warned of the international bounty that is now on his head. Then he takes flight into the streets of New York. Because he knows there will be a sequel. Because he knows there will be more people to kill. Because he knows he’s John Wick.

I, in the meantime, am not John Wick. The differences are quite obvious, but our age should be sufficiently distinguishing. John Wick the character appears to be nearing 50, although I suspect that John Wick the idea is older than me by an immeasurable span of years.

I am 23. That makes me part of the generation that came of age alongside the phenomenon of mass shootings, that watched them slowly and steadily drip into our lives until everyone forgot that they weren’t always there. To this day, my mom still tells the story of how my elementary school principal was amazed that I, at the age of 3, could sit so quietly in a PTA meeting playing with my toy trains while the adults around me struggled to figure out how to implement procedures to prevent another Columbine. I’d like to chalk my silence up to solid parenting and youthful ignorance. However, at the same time, maybe I was just being a good student, learning another skill that, like long division, I had no idea that I would ever need.  

Granted, because we were the inaugural class, the syllabus was easier for us. The work was graduated and spread intermittently across our formative years. In 2007, the Virginia Tech shooting came along with a soft lecture from my fifth-grade teacher about guns and why some people use them to murder their classmates. Sandy Hook was another homework assignment to be completed over the weekend. Aurora was the summer reading no one talked about when we returned in the fall. Each one a little bigger. Each one impressing on us just a little further that this is how the world works now.

As in any good curriculum, our education continued well after high school. While studying in Europe, I recall the day immediately after the shooting at the Bataclan, when Italian military members were suddenly present at every metro stop, carrying rifles so large as to almost be comical. I wondered if this was what they meant when they said studying abroad is supposed to broaden your horizons.

Even now, as a graduate student, the lessons of my youth are constantly being reviewed and refined. One day last fall, my classmates and I were sitting in my criminal law class, six stories above a crowded thoroughfare in Downtown Brooklyn, when we heard a tight, explosive bang. It was following by screaming and the low shuffle of a shifting crowd. 

Remarkably, as we turned in our seats to catch a glimpse out the window behind us, our professor continued to lecture. While I believe that her ignorance was born out of momentary focus and not callow disregard, on reflection, it’s a rather apt metaphor: while the grown-up lectured to us about laws that weren’t going to prevent what had just occurred, we looked around the room, studying the masks of jaded calm on the faces of our classmates, peering into their eyes, looking for anything to affirm our suspicion that this is not normal.

But of course it is. For us, gun violence is routine. It fills our newspapers and social media feeds along with news of international affairs, stock prices, and celebrity gossip. It is a silent crescendo, the repetitive pop song stuck in your head that you never want to hear: You are not safe. You are not safe. You are not safe.

However, like all annoying pop songs, it eventually fades. And in the interim between bouts of persistent annoyance, it is simply part of the landscape. We may even come to enjoy it, if it appears on the right playlist or eases our boredom as we wait for a doctor’s appointment. The promise of cheap entertainment can make anything more palatable. Even tragedy. 

And that is why I struggle with John Wick. I understand that it’s entertainment. I understand that the violence in these movies is so grotesque and prevalent as to almost qualify as satire. But I also understand that eventually, there comes a point when you can’t tell if you’re laughing at the joke or the joke is laughing at you. When these movies inevitably segue to their reality show spinoff, I will not be the star. I will be the barely perceptible extra, running in the background, screaming in terror, frantically struggling to save his life.

Somehow, that is the central, contradictory appeal of John Wick. We enjoy these films as pure spectacle, because we know that in the real world that John Wick does not look like Keanu Reeves. In the real world, John Wick looks like Dylan Roof. He looks like James Holmes. He looks like the perpetrators of shootings in Pittsburgh, in Christchurch, in Virginia Beach, in your town and my town today and tomorrow and every day hereafter for as long as this country continues to embrace that ultimate American male fantasy: the good guy with a gun. 

As always, I don’t have an actionable solution to this beyond voting for legislators who will support sensible gun reform. If I was brave, I would dare to suggest something more drastic. That being said, I’ve seen what happens to those who try to stop John Wick.  

I will probably still see John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, if only because I too want to see a dark-suited Keanu Reeves stride gloriously through the streets of Manhattan on a stallion. But I will do so reluctantly, as a slave to my desire for spectacle and expensive popcorn. Because in one respect, as an American, I am very much like John Wick. I too live by a code that defines my place in the world, even as it threatens my existence in it. It is a code written in bad laws and rigid history, in steel and combustion, in thoughts and prayers. And it compels me to sit back and watch John Wick, the greatest American film hero of our time. Because he will kill us all.