No action film of the 2010s draws on the lexicon and ambience of gaming quite like John Wick, whose lurid, day-glo, Milkyway universe takes place in a world in which every aspect of everyday life has been gamified, and every figure is either an avatar or a gamer. At heart, it’s a revenge narrative, in which the title hit man, played by Keanu Reeves, seeks vengeance on a Russian gangster, and then the entire Russian mafia, after a series of escalating crimes committed against his property, but for the most part it’s drained of anything resembling conventional characterisation or subjectivity, instead playing as a series of increasingly abstract set pieces in which the combination of speed, skill and strength seems like an incitement to gaming, and a challenge to the gamer to come up with something equally dexterous. Heavily filtered to resemble the lighting and palette of a dystopian sandbox game, these set pieces play out against a perpetual storm, a brooding darkness, dimness, dankness and wetness in which the main narrative is never really established, but simply assumed, dropping us in the middle of a criminal fraternity called the Continental, and only gradually and incidentally revealing its operations, its relation to John Wick itself, and the broader global landscape within which it commands such an incredible sway and hegemony.
As that might suggest, most of the relations in John Wick don’t occur between people and people, but between people and objects, or people and animals, as Chad Stahelski translates the object-oriented ontology of gaming to the big screen in a remarkably eloquent way. While Wick does have a backstory involving his wife’s death, his relation to her doesn’t every feel like a real or lived relation, but a generalised sombreness that hangs over the film – not all that different, structurally, from the apocalyptic catastrophes that typically set the scene for dystopian sandbox games. Against that backdrop, Wick’s two biggest attachments are to his car and to his puppy, but even his connection with his puppy feels somewhat arbitrary, given that the two only first cross paths at the start of the film. With nothing in the way of real human connection to anchor him, Wick isn’t a character so much as an inexorability, or inevitability, since we quickly find out that he is the most talented hit man in the business, and virtually unstoppable when he decides on a kill. That affectlessness works perfectly with Keanu Reeves, as does the sense of inexorability, since there’s always a point when Keanu’s charisma reaches its limits in any of his major cinematic roles. What’s different about John Wick is that it takes that limitation as its starting point, divesting Keanu of as much dialogue as possible, apart from the periodic “Yeah” that feels like a defiant and playful acknowledgment of this horizon of his charisma.
That’s not to say, of course, that Wick doesn’t interact with people, but that the moments of interpersonal connection mean nothing, as even the two hit men who seem to have the best rapport with him turning out to be the first who try to assassinate him when things start to get crazy. All that anchors him to the human world is his membership in the Continental criminal organisation, and yet this organisation values professionalism above all else, just as it subsumes every single possible experience, action or intention into its exchange-value, situating Wick in a world in which even the most precious or immediate encounters turn out to be entirely fungible, just as even the most memorable or accomplished iterations of a game can be wiped and replayed. Even beyond Wick’s purview, the film’s characters have a purely mechanical and mercenary relation to one another, evoking a criminal sphere that is light years beyond, say, Michael Mann’s Heat, in which there is no place for even the most residual sentiment, let alone the sentiment of hard-boiled disillusion. In fact, John Wick is more properly post-noir, reminding you of how sentimental hard-boiled subjectivitty actually is, if only because of how clinically Stahelski and Keanu excise it. In another kind of film, Wick might also play as a superhero, but without the charisma he’s a placeholder for that identity too, a masculine force that is inexorable and unstoppable, but ultimately has no intrinsic or inherent identity of his own.
That void produces an utterly aleatory vision of New York and New Jersey in turn, which is where most of the film takes place. Set in “New York” and “New Jersey” in the same way that a game might be set in “New York” and “New Jersey” – and there are continuous references to specific games – this is a world where Americans feel like foreigners, just because everyone feels like foreigners. In fact, the only people who feel at home are the Russian mafia, just because they are openly foreign, as Stahelski discorrelates his camera from New York in particular, shooting the city as if there were no lineage of New York cinema, or no historical correlation between New York cinema. In other words, he shoots New York as if there were no cinematic shorthand for depicting New York, which is perhaps why this often feels as if it is actually set in Toronto, or in one of the cities that typically doubles as New York, even or especially as key buildings and landmarks make it clear that we can’t possibly be anywhere other than the Big Apple. That weird displacement of the city from itself opens up unexpected sightlines and passages, which is where the action tends to occur – spaces that always feel a bit exposed or too vulnerable to settle into a stable atmosphere of their own, with the result that New York is progressively stripped of its singularity and subsumed back into a broader global economic landscape, whose material residues litter the film, from Russian shipping crates to the gold tokens of the Continental.
Within that strange and distended space, the action plays as high theatre, choreographed in ever more operatic ways to translate the baroque mechanics of gaming to the big screen. Much of the time the action scenes are actually shot like a first person shooter, while the Russian mafia actually use first person shooters to prepare for Wick, resulting in a penultimate sequence in which Stahelski intercuts between gaming and real shooting more and more frenetically, culminating with a gamer being shot by Wick in the side of the head while gaming in preparation for fighting him. Yet for all that choreography, physical combat is not especially foregrounded, since this is ultimately a shooter film more than an action film, more preoccupied with shooting accuracy and movement from one shot to the next rather than feats of muscularity or bodily endurance. While the action certainly has its fair share of speed, strength and style, it’s about dexterity above all else – and it’s hard to think of a more vivid way to transfer the dexterity of the master gamer into embodied cinematics.
By the final scenes, then, John Wick has gravitated into a LetsPlay starring Keanu, a film that’s being gamed from our pleasure. Dissociated from even the slightest residues of character, Wick is focused on goals and objectives above all else, killing to get through a space rather than with any interest in individual foes, all the while dealing with threats from multiple perspecties and oblique angles. Within that environment, the most important skill is maintaining the right pulse, momentum and rhythm in order to orchestrate your gun with the surrounding environment, which is perhaps why the kill scenes often feel so close to dance sequences, just as the diffuse dayglow spaces of the film are always on the verge of coalescing around dance floors, which are presented here as the ultimate aleatory and affectless global space. So tactile is the film that it almost demands that you watch it with a gaming console – or through a gaming console – in order to have some kind of tactile intermediary, since this is a film that demands to be touched. Collapsing avatar and gamer and forcing the audience to inhabit that collapse – Keanu is our avatar, but we also identify with Keanu as gamer – John Wick takes the disembodiment of gaming and shifts it seamlessly into the disembodiment of cinema, releasing a remarkable quantum of embodied energy in the process, energy that demands a sequel and franchise to satiate it.