Washington Post (US), May 22, 2019
John Wick is the perfect folk hero for our age — and Keanu Reeves is the perfect person to play him
by Sonny Bunch
This essay discusses plot points from all three “John Wick” movies; complaints about spoilers will be adjudicated by the High Table of Critics.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is something out of a fairy tale. Literally: He is referred to as “baba yaga” or boogeyman. When his exploits are whispered of, the stories are both ridiculous yet seemingly plausible — killing three men with a pencil in a bar sounds absurd at first, but when you consider the possibilities that a small sharpened implement offers for harm, is it that crazy?
The simplicity of Wick’s story — he seeks vengeance against those who stole his car and killed his dog, which was a gift from his dead wife — combined with his skill with guns and knives (and writing implements) foreground his legend. However, in the background of the “John Wick” films, writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have crafted a world of mythical references and religious symbolism that suggest Wick harkens to a line of legends and folk heroes. His is the latest face of the monomyth. And the charmingly goofy Keanu Reeves, whose accidental virality on social media has turned him into a different sort of legend, is the perfect actor to portray him.
Much has been made of the world-building in “John Wick” and its sequels. There are the gold coins the assassins trade with each other, which represent not fiscal but social currency, favors made solid. There’s the chain of Continental hotels, on the grounds of which no “business” (i.e., murder) can be conducted, and the High Table, a collection of the heads of the major crime syndicates. Wick’s world has been salted with other symbols, however: older, more primal notions.
His wife was Helen (Bridget Moynahan), whose best-known namesake launched a thousand ships. Note that the concierge of the New York Continental is named Charon (Lance Reddick), who students of mythology will recognize as the ferryman for the River Styx, the guide between the worlds of the living and the damned. The mute murderess in “John Wick: Chapter 2” is Ares (Ruby Rose), the Greek god of war who backed the wrong side in the conflict over Helen. The name of Sofia (Halle Berry), who helps Wick learn the path to the man above the High Table in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” derives from “wisdom” in ancient Greek.
Similarly, there are echoes of Christian theology throughout Wick’s adventures.
Wick’s initial nemesis, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), posits that the bespoke-suited killer cannot get out of the business because he is the literal manifestation of God’s wrath. “In the end, a lot of us are rewarded for our misdeeds, which is why God took your wife and unleashed you upon me,” Viggo says. “This life follows you. It clings to you, infecting everyone who comes close to you. We are cursed, you and I.” In the second film, one of Wick’s victims cuts her wrists in a bathtub before sliding into the position of Christ on the cross — Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) dies for Wick’s sins, her murder demanded by a man owed a favor that Wick cannot refuse.
And in “Parabellum,” Wick risks life and limb to obtain a hidden crucifix, a totem he takes back to the Belarusan orphanage that trained him in the deadly arts. He calls it a ticket — like the marker, this ticket can’t be refused — and demands passage to safety. Passage that is granted after the cross is heated over a fire and used to mark his flesh. Passage that eventually results in Wick taking a journey through the desert, past the point of human endurance, past thirst and hunger, to meet with a mysterious force who tempts him.
These mythical allusions and his travel along the hero’s journey are among the reasons Wick resonates as a modern folk hero — but the character’s personification by Keanu Reeves, accidental social media superstar, ensured he would be ensconced in the public consciousness. Reeves has become a modern legend in his own right. He’s a meme several times over: There’s Sad Keanu and its counterpart Happy Keanu; there’s Conspiracy Keanu and Whoa/Woah Keanu. There’s a Twitter account dedicated to Reeves doing things. He’s always happy to take a picture with fans or sign autographs for hapless cinema employees. If you’re unlucky enough to get stuck on a bus trip after your plane makes an emergency landing, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to have Reeves accompany you.
The deadly, unstoppable earnestness of Wick is leavened by Reeves’s emergence as the literal embodiment of William Wordsworth’s happy warrior: “It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought / Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought / Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought: / Whose high endeavours are an inward light / That makes the path before him always bright.”
Wick and Reeves synthesize into a wonderful modern folk hero, a larger-than-life exemplar of that which is best in life. Wick/Reeves scratches an itch as old as the Greek myths whose echoes populate his films. The very simplicity of the John Wick story — the foundation of which is reducible to a haiku, if you’re so inclined — is soothing in this age of complication, when you need a flow chart to keep track of our political scandals and entire sections of Reddit to track the actions on our TV shows. In an age desperate for legends, for someone we can simply shower adoration upon for virtuosity on screen and decency in real life, is it any wonder each opening weekend of this series has made roughly double the earnings of its predecessor?