Stakes, or, Why John Wick is Awesome

JohnWick

John Wick is a movie about a man who goes after the son of a mafia family to avenge his dead dog. I finally saw it on Netflix last week. It’s a great movie – at least according to me. Let me explain why I think that.

The plot

The plot is pretty straightforward. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife to a disease and right after the funeral a last gift from her is delivered at his door. It’s a dog. She gives him the dog to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails in his grief. The car he loves wouldn’t be enough, she believes.

John cares for the dog, but two days later, as he’s gassing up his car, he runs into the son of a Russian mobster. The youth wants his car. John refuses to sell it. That night, the mobsters invade his home, beat him, kill his dog, and take his car.

John snaps and he goes after the young mobsters. It turns out John is a retired mafia hit man and very capable of vengeance.

Simple, but good

John Wick isn’t a complex thriller. It’s not Inception, or the Shawshank Redemption, or Requiem for a Dream. It’s not science fiction or fantasy. John Wick is a revenge movie; the modern equivalent of Death Wish. However, it does the revenge movie thing very, very well.

We quickly sympathize with John Wick. The movie first establishes him as a man grieving for his wife, and only later as a legendary hitman. This is smart, because it first breeds sympathy and familiarity, and only then we get to see John’s bad side. The bad guys are all scared of him, take their precautions, and he still goes after them.

The movie also follows the Hollywood formula quite nicely. If you get right down to it, John Wick wants to move on with his normal life after his wife dies. The antagonist is the leader of the Russian mob, who keeps putting obstacles in John’s path. The sympathetic character is Marcus (Willem Dafoe), who at one point tells John “it’s time to go home”. I’ll not go into more detail to not spoil too much of the movie.

Finally, the way the movie is shot is very neat. Max Gladstone already wrote an excellent piece on that, so I don’t need to retread that. Suffice it to say, the action is very fluid and dynamic. It’s almost like a dance, with Keanu mostly at exactly the right place at the right time, making the right move.

Stakes

One of the strongest things about this movie – I feel – is the way the stakes are set up. The cliche approach would have been to have the bad guys murder John’s wife. Killing the main character’s wife is how many movies do it: Death Wish, Mad Max, Gladiator, and even Memento. But this movie doesn’t. John is given a dog – and a darn cute one at that – by his dead wife. It is established as the parting gift from his wife, and literally the thing that gets him out of bed in the morning.

Then the bad guys kill the dog, almost carelessly. It sets up the stakes remarkably well. Why? Well, losing a loving spouse is something we dread, but it isn’t something that has happened to most of us. Pets, however… Many of us have lost pets in their lives. It’s not just something we fear, it’s a pain we recognize. On top of that, a small dog is far more defenseless than a grown woman. It turns the mobster into a bad guy and a bully.

All in all, this is a brilliant way to raise the stakes. No danger to the human race, no chance of countries falling into chaos. No, just a man losing his dog.

We understand and we sympathize, in a way that most of us can’t for a spy trying to save the country.

Conclusion

John Wick rocks. It’s Keanu Reeves at his best, with a score of other great actors. It is what it is, a revenge movie, but it is a revenge movie brilliantly.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands