Back in 2014, a little action movie came out called John Wick. An original action property made in the era of sequels, remakes, and reimaginings, it hadn't built up too much buzz prior to release. Once it came out, though, it received a rapturous critical response and doubled its expected opening ticket sales. Off that strong start, it cruised into instant cult classic status and did well enough financially to merit a sequel. And it's not hard to see why. John Wick is a masterpiece of action filmmaking. Its fights are tightly executed marvels, balletic displays that combine the visceral action of a gunfight with the careful choreography of kung fu. Its economical narrative provides everything you need to engage with the story while also dropping fascinating tidbits of worldbuilding, little glimpses into a compelling universe that feels like it exists beyond the bounds of the movie. It is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of an action movie, a film that embodies everything that makes the genre fun.
But its distillation of the action movie doesn't end at positive qualities. There is a darker side to this type of movie, especially those that, like John Wick, use revenge as a motivating force in the plot. In these types of narratives, ones where a usually white, always male protagonist goes on a rampage against those who have taken his family/his wife/his girlfriend/his dog/just about anything from him, there is an implicit assumption that anything he does in pursuit of this vengeance is permissible. Whatever murder, mayhem, and carnage is enacted in his wake, it is always justified because he has been wronged. It's an inherently selfish, almost solipsistic view of the world, and like everything else about action movies, John Wick elevates and embodies this tendency.
If you've heard of John Wick before, you probably know how it starts. In grief after the death of his wife, the titular John Wick receives a dog as a posthumous gift from her. This small comfort is soon shattered, however, when an impetuous gangster he had a run-in with earlier breaks into his house, kills his dog, and steals his car. This turns out to be a huge mistake, as John is a retired hitman of immense skill who used to work for the gangster's father. His actions set off a chain of events that sees the vengeful John Wick destroying their entire criminal empire. It's a narrative device that is brilliant in its simplicity, quickly establishing your sympathies and setting off a conflict that builds off itself beautifully. But there's a wrinkle to this simple beginning that not only made me deeply uncomfortable, it made it difficult for me to enjoy the rest of the movie, well-executed as it was.
As his former employer, the gangster's father knows exactly how skilled and deadly John Wick is. That his reputation precedes him and inspires fear and respect is a running theme of the movie, but in this case it leads the man to reach out to his former associate. He offers his apologies and tries to make amends, but John Wick simply hangs up on him. It's a funny moment, and it effectively establishes John Wick's resolve. But the first time I watched the movie, it struck me for an entirely different reason: it made everything John Wick did from that point forward entirely unnecessary.
This isn't to say that his targets are innocent victims, of course. They are violent, unrepentant criminals who seek a peaceful end to the conflict not out of any genuine remorse but because they are scared of what he will do. But the fact remains that they did seek a peaceful end, and he rejected it. John Wick isn't killing them out of some sense of justice, but purely as retaliation for what they did to him, so he can hardly claim some sort of moral high ground here. John Wick, apparently, can find no peace that does not involve mass death.
It's tempting to call this a narrative problem, but it's really not. That John Wick single-mindedly seeks bloody revenge is not an immersion breaking contrivance. It makes perfect sense for his character: robbed of the last remaining connection to the love of his life, his grief cannot allow him to accept any kind of anti-climactic conclusion, and he returns to the violent life that was once all he knew. What was disturbing to me was the idea that I was supposed to find this sympathetic. It is sad that these things have happened to him, and perhaps I could accept the movie logic that the gangster who wronged him deserved his fate. But John Wick works out his grief through the skulls of literally dozens of people who had nothing to do with the death of his wife and dog. At one point he holds the gangster's father at gunpoint and forces him to reveal his son's location, essentially consigning his only child to death. Even John Wick's fellow hitman friend ends up dead because of his relentless crusade, tortured at the hands of the furious father. The movie asks you to accept that John Wick's feelings are more valuable than countless lives, a viewpoint that is, at heart, unbelievably selfish.
While this may be true of nearly every movie in a similar genre as John Wick, what makes this example so notable is how utterly inescapable it is, how integral it is to the very elements that make the movie successful. John Wick strips away all the artifice of action movies and gets straight to their heart, and this means laying bare their ultimate solipsism. There is literally nothing more important than the protagonists's feelings: not the law, not self-preservation, not other lives, not even his own friends. His growth, his ability to process and heal from the trauma that he has suffered, is more valuable than anything else in the world. The narrative and stylistic economy of John Wick, while excellent in filmmaking terms, means there is nothing to conceal this essential fact.
Despite this, I don't mean to say I even dislike the movie. It's hard not to recognize its obvious merit as an incredibly well-made film. Nor do I mean to prudishly declare the depiction of violence completely off-limits. There are plenty of movies I unreservedly love at which the very same criticism could justifiably be leveled. But I do think it is worth considering what it means to elevate narratives that are so utterly lacking in empathy. At a time when it is more important than ever that we recognize the humanity of others, I can't help but be uncomfortable when something completely dismisses the notion in favor of a solipsistic selfishness that values feelings over lives.