I had a revelation on the way to the office today about violence in popular culture, and why John Wick might have been made.
I think John Wick -which, let me add is one of the best action movies ever made with very strong and intriguing characters- was made to put a mirror to our enjoyment of blood and gore.
Back in the days, ancient Romans unashamedly enjoyed blood sports in the arena. Yes, death was not a very common occurrence during gladiatorial combat, but the chance was always there- and they had animal hunts, executions and mock battles to watch, too; plenty of blood and death.
Our 20th and 21th century sensitives, however do not really allow for enjoy violence for its own sake even if it’s simulated – in a movie, book, or computer game. We need our hero to have a valid reason to go on a murderous rampage, which we can then enjoy to its fullest extent, since, you know, it’s all justified. After all his family has been murdered, he is forced by the baddies, he is trying to save his girlfriend, he is fighting the evil Russians, the enemies are computer programs anyway, or they are slimy ugly Nazis or aliens. It’s all good, you see; he has a good reason to spill all that gore, and he does not enjoy it at all while doing it (but he is very good at it regardless). This thin moral veil allow us, connoisseurs, to take delight of the masterful ways the blood is being spilled by our reluctant hero. Sure, there are people who would love watching a 120 minute action sequence without any context, but they are in the minority. (The closest to a 120 minute torture-fest is the Passion of the Christ, but even there you have the whole religious “they are killing your Saviour” angle; it would have not been so successful -or accepted- if they just filmed the execution of any random Roman civilian.)
It’s very difficult to make a successful action movie/thriller/whatever with a psychopathic protagonist who just kills for killing’s sake. Even if the protagonist is literally a serial killer who obviously has mental issues, you need some sort of a moral anchor that justifies his urges you otherwise would find reprehensible (…like only killing bad guys who escaped justice).
I think the makers of John Wick simply decided to do away all that; they have given people a really, really, really flimsy pretext (such as the killing of our retired hitman hero’s dog) for him to go on a rampage where he ends up killing over seventy human beings. All in the name of revenge for the dog (who was admittedly really cute). Don’t forget; most of these people are simply hired muscle who have nothing to do with John’s angst- the only person who does deserve death is the guy who actually killed the dog. The rest are collateral damage occurred while he was trying to get to our dog-murderer. I do not know if the screen writers really wanted us to face our need to justify violence, or if the script was just making fun of the whole “revenge killings” genre of movies, but they succeeded in making one -if not- the best action movies of all time. Perhaps it’s coming to a full cycle: we are slowly returning to the Romans’ unashamed enjoyment of bloodshed.