In the words of one Dave Grohl, I’ve got another confession to make. I am not a fan of the John Wick series. Despite my best efforts and cleanest of intentions, I could never extract enough enjoyment from watching any of its instalments to join in on what seemed to look like unanimous acclaim. Every time I find myself at odds with the mainstream consensus, I always scratch my head and wonder why that is. I don’t necessarily wish I was a part of the ‘in’ crowd, but I am still curious where this dissonance is coming from. And after much deliberation I surmised that John Wick movies are not movies. They are video games. Or at least they are built like them.
When the original John Wick was breaking into the mainstream, a lot of noise was made of exactly two aspects of its story, which – compared to the sequels – was quite pared down and simple: the character’s motivations and the worldbuilding underpinning the narrative, neither of which appealed to me particularly strongly. Let’s face it, John Wick, at least as far as its narrative provenance was concerned, amounted to re-telling of a classic revenge archetype, like the one found in Death Wish or Mad Max. However, one of the main problems I had with it – and it has very little to do with my opening gambit of the movie being a video game progeny; more on that in a second – was that the dramatic stakes set by the narrative did not match the magnitude of the character’s response. Translated into human, John Wick had absolutely no reason to react the way he reacted to a bunch of yobs stealing his car and killing his dog.
I know, I know. The dog was an avatar for his dead wife sent by her essentially from beyond the grave. Maybe I would have bought this conceit had I seen him interact with the dog for more than half a second, which worked much better in The Road Warrior, for example. However, the easier way to generate narrative momentum for John Wick would have been to ditch the car and the dog and go back to the basics. Brutal as it would have been, John Wick would have had a much better motivation to go on a four-movie-long killing spree if these baddies had killed his wife instead.
But that’s all been done before, you’d say, and you’d be right. It would have been archetypal – dare I say Shakespearean – to resolve the issue of John Wick’s dramatic momentum in such a way. And in fairness, the decision not to do so is already an indication that the movie and the series it spawned was never interested in exploring the dramatic minutiae of its own narrative. It was an excuse to send a cool-looking character into the world so that he could use cool weapons and vehicles while taking out progressively more difficult opponents. The entire dramatic conceit underpinning John Wick as a series was taken verbatim from a philosophy of engineering video games. If John Wick was a series of video games, you would not care about the wife or the dog, because you’d see them – and rightly so – as just an excuse to get on with the business of shooting at enemies advancing towards you.
Once you agree to this simple interpretation that John Wick movies are not movies but instalments in a growing series of video games, things start falling into place and certain elements begin to look a tad more familiar. As you sit impotently on John Wick’s shoulder while he’s busy being essentially indestructible while taking out swarms of enemies, mini-bosses and respective chapter bosses, you should be able to point out elements of familiarity that derive from the world of computer games. John Wick levels up as he goes along, his skills improve, he discovers new weaponry, accrues and spends currency in exchange for shelter, ammunition and other assistance, all of which adds up to rather superficial world-building. His initially straightforward mission of enacting revenge quickly transforms into a grander crusade as the lore surrounding this world opens up and introduces seemingly alien concepts of The High Table, Ex-communicados, Deconsecrations etc. Again, none of this truly matters dramatically; the lore is a useful distraction and a tool of retaining viewer immersion, but the objective remains the same – advance forward and kill everything that moves.
What is more, the movies follow a video game logic (which in the case of video games is most often dictated by necessity of keeping things simple) and effectively pretend the world does not exist beyond the frame of the movie. Glitzy and neon-washed as it is, the world of John Wick movies is effectively barren and filled with two kinds of characters: enemies to be slain and NPCs interaction with whom is either pre-ordained or impossible. Therefore, some of the most superficially impressive set pieces in the series – particularly the silencer gun shootout in a crowded subway space in John Wick: Chapter 2 and the night club scene in John Wick: Chapter 4 – where nobody cares about the unfolding mayhem and continues with their day, as though they were programmed to follow a certain pattern unless directly interacted with. Only when a certain point is reached, panic ensues, dancers disperse, and pedestrians flee in terror and cower beyond the corner of the map the character is allowed to ‘freely’ explore.
This logic extends to most set pieces found in these movies, where buildings can be demolished without any impact on the outside world, and complete scenes can be staged in public locations without a single passerby, or a dog-walker found in the background. And of course, John Wick is essentially untouchable as well. He can roll down the stairs, fall out of windows and – just like a video game character – he will immediately get up, dust himself off and go on with his day because he still has plenty left over in his health bar. That is until it is narratively convenient for him not to be OK.
So, why is this a problem? Well, it is because a video game is an active medium. I get to be John Wick. I can inhabit his headspace and develop my own hand-eye coordination along with other tangential skills as the game throws progressively more difficult problems for me to tackle. If I imagine myself controlling the character of John Wick on the screen, then none of my concerns will hold water. I would not pay attention to the fact I’m on this prolonged rampage because someone took my character’s car and killed his dog. I’d be doing my thing because I sat down to do this thing. I’d be there to shoot guns and have fun, so the dramatic reasoning for me to do anything would be at best of secondary importance. I’d also be not too fussed about NPCs being non-interactive or that the map I was exploring had invisible edges. I wouldn’t care because I would be laser-focused on advancing forward and firing at enemies that now – four chapters in – require not one but two headshots to be put down.
Problem is, John Wick movies are movies and not games. So, I cannot be an active participant in the allegedly iconic one-take sequence in Chapter 4 (which by the way looks specifically designed to make people wish they could control John Wick’s character in a video game version of this scene); I can only watch. This entire series is an experiment in having me sit through a series of walkthrough videos where someone else – not me – plays the game. But there’s one catch. There is no video game for me to pick up after so that I could have a go myself. It doesn’t exist. If I want to experience John Wick the way I believe these movies are meant to be experienced, I need to buy into the idea that watching other people play a game that is beyond my reach is somehow entertaining in the medium-to-long term. Sure, I can concede that viscerally many of the constituent parts of these movies are interestingly put together and if I squint, I can just about pretend they have enough cinema magic flowing through them to transport me temporarily. But I cannot squint forever.
Therefore, as someone who is unable to get invested in the drama of this narrative (because the dog vendetta, black market currencies and hastily assembled lore are not enough to get my buy-in), all I have to go on is the spectacle. And the spectacle – once you realize it – is akin to being strapped to a chair with your eyelids propped open like Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange watching someone else play a cool-looking video game while simultaneously telling me both how great it feels to play it and that I will never get to play it myself.
So, there is really no coming back from this for me because this series from its very inception has been decidedly making moves to assure me it is not a mere coincidence but a result of conscious engineering to make John Wick movies look video game-inspired. As an experiment, it is somehow admirable and maybe I can smile and see this series as a unique example of a series of movies adapted from a video game that ended up not only financially successful but culturally lasting on its own terms. Now, the only thing that needs to happen is for someone to actually make John Wick games that live up to the movies. However, what the resulting video games will look decidedly as though they were attempting to rip off the well-known Max Payne series that has already – many years ago – ripped off both Death Wish and The Matrix in an attempt to make a rather successful and immersive noir shooter product.
I suppose it just goes to show that the video game industry as a whole is for the most part a derivative of the movie entertainment industry, as it openly borrows and repackages successful movies into a format that allows the viewer to become an interactive user of the universe they wished they could be a part of while watching a movie. So, if someone decided to adapt John Wick movies into Max Payne-esque video games (and for the record, I am aware that a John Wick game exists, though it is a far cry from what it should look like if it were to be used as a retroactive inspiration for the John Wick movie franchise), we’d end up in a vicious circle of repetitively distilling and repackaging thematic content until such a point arrives where nothing more can be distilled off and repackaged; only unusable sludge.
In any case, this is where I’m at. I don’t like John Wick movies as movies because they look like video games I am not allowed to play. Feel free to disagree, but as far as I am concerned, this is a hill I am prepared to die on. They are all a conglomerate of ankle-deep cultural referencing and trope-borrowing that is rife within the video game industry and any philosophical musings you could potentially append to these movies look so shallow that they make The Matrix sequels look as though they were written by a French philosopher at the turn of the century.