The Reason People Connect So Deeply With John Wick
by Travis Bean
As John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum hits DVD and Blu-ray this week, we saw many articles hyping Keanu Reeves’ return to the action genre, speculating about the next chapter in the John Wick series, boasting the newly born franchise’s virality.
But as the third chapter hits streaming services, there’s one thing I haven’t seen anyone discussing: the deep, psychological reason the franchise blew up in the first place.
In my opinion, there’s actually a very specific reason for John Wick’s success: the movie explores something that eventually happens to everybody. It can last a week, a month, an entire year—sometimes it never goes away. But at some point...we all feel like we’re broken. And it can seem like it’s never going to get better.
Maybe a loved one dies. Or maybe you get dumped. Or maybe you lose your dream job. Or maybe you realize you’re never going to achieve your dream job. These kinds of experiences can make us feel as though our lives are on dark, treacherous paths that we didn’t plan for, that we don’t deserve. It can seem as though the entire world is piling on our backs and pressing us permanently into the ground. It can feel like we’ll never recover.
I’m sure Keanu Reeves has felt that way. His father bailed on him at the age of three. His best friend River Phoenix died in 1993. Reeves’ sister Kim battled cancer for more than a decade. In late 1999, Reeves and his then-girlfriend Jennifer Syme lost their baby. Then less than two years later, Syme died in a terrible car accident.
At any moment, Reeves could have given up—so many people do. He could have recoiled and hid himself from the spotlight. And for all we know, maybe he did for periods of time. But today, Keanu Reeves seems more relevant and important than ever before. In fact, people are calling 2019 the “Keanussance.” His career has taken off once again thanks to the John Wick series.
It just so happens that the character of John Wick had some hardships as well. After losing his wife to a terminal illness, John abandons his career as a hitman and retreats to his empty home. All he has is a beagle puppy named Daisy that his wife left for him.
I think that just about everyone—including Keanu Reeves—can connect with that image. That lonely, desolate home became a symbolic representation of grief and hardship that feels like it’s never going to go away. When something that terrible happens to you, you’re incapable of thinking long-term or looking for solutions to get better—all you can do is sit in your grief.
But then something happens that forces us to evaluate ourselves, that nudges us to become more mentally stable. In John Wick, the first film of the franchise, that came in the form of murderous mobsters. After John refused to sell his vintage car to a young entitled punk, the boy’s gang breaks into John’s house and murders Daisy and steals John’s car.
The plot that follows seems pretty typical for an action film. John is pulled back into the hitman game and chases down the Russians who stole his car. One by one, person by person, John obliterates everyone in his path until he’s able to take the life of the man who killed his dog. It’s a revenge plot pulled straight from the genre playbook.
Except...there’s so much more to it all. Because John’s dog wasn’t just a companion—it was John’s last living memory of his wife. Daisy as a puppy was the metaphorical start of a new life, a chance to begin anew when everything seemed lost. As John tended to and cared for this puppy, John was actually tending to and caring for himself as well. Instead of retreating into nothingness, John kept pushing forward and caring for his new friend.
Yet here’s the thing: John never left his home, his safe space. Despite what comforts John’s puppy provided, Daisy allowed John to remain tethered to the home he shared with his wife. That was until the Russian mobsters killed his dog and stole his car. This forced John to awaken from his comatose state, to take on the life he lived before his wife’s death, to prove to the world that he still had something to offer.
Movies (and all stories for that matter) aim to artistically explore the universal truths of life. And films in the action and sci-fi and horror genre can blow up those common life experiences to hyperbolic proportions—that’s exactly what the John Wick series does. In a state of grief, John’s way of coping is becoming a hitman once again. Every life he takes is a step forward. Every despicable hitman who wants to end John’s life is another hurdle John must jump on the road to recovery.
When Santino burns down John’s home in John Wick: Chapter Two, John must rebuild. When a hit is put on John’s life in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, John must fight back. Film after film, the John Wick series continues to place strain on John, who must in turn continue to press forward. This becomes reflective of the draining grieving process, which can feel like an endlessly uphill battle...until you’re better. Until you cross that final barrier and normal starts to feel normal again.
That’s what John is working towards film after film. However complex and detailed the world of John Wick becomes, that core dynamic will always be present. John has something to fight for: his former self.
Grief can eventually win out—but only if we let it win. Only if we give up. And I think anyone who’s gone through the grieving process can connect with John Wick’s plight. In my opinion, that emotional, psychological connection many of us share with the John Wick character is what drives us to pay to see what happens next. And the box office results prove it: John Wick made $88.8 million in 2014; then John Wick: Chapter Two accrued $171.5 million 2017; and finally John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum blew up with $321.7 million earlier this year.
This is why we pay the price of admission when we go to a movie or buy a Blu-ray. We’re looking to be entertained...but we’re also looking to connect with these characters plastered on the big screen. And many people’s deep, underlying connection with John Wick may just be what allows the franchise to continue to grow for years to come.