Checking Into The Continental - World Building in "John Wick" and "John Wick 2"
The 2014 film John Wick is full of contradictions. The action is (rightfully) praised for the high-degree of verisimilitude that it becomes hyper-stylized. The revenge narrative is motivated not so much by the much talked about puppy scene, but by what that represents – the last connection a grieving man has to the woman who likely saved his life. Even the trophy of traditional masculinity – the 1969 Mustang stolen from Wick – is revealed to have a deeper meaning. Hidden depths are at the heart of the film, and its sequel, John Wick 2 (2017). Over the course of the two films we’re led on an Orphean journey into an underworld with its own clearly-established language, economy, laws, and culture. The directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, reveal this information in hints to the audience, which simultaneously learns little about the protagonist himself.
Revenge narratives and films about hitmen who are both the hunter and hunted are nothing new in the action genre. This is territory well-covered in everything from The Bourne Identity (2002) and its sequels, to Kill Bill (2003), Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), and Payback (1999) - itself an adaptation of a 1962 novel The Hunter. Where John Wick sets itself apart is through the specific euphemistic language and at times anachronistic elements. In the first film these serve to provide hints of the larger underworld Wick operates in. They also lay the foundation for the fully-developed mythology made central to the plot in John Wick 2.
The characters in John Wick speak to each other almost exclusively in euphemism. There are few honest exchanges amongst those for whom every relationship – and even their day-to-day existence, is transactional. Early in the first film, as Wick stands, bloody and surrounded by the bodies of those who came into his home trying to kill him, he places a phone call. “I’d like a dinner reservation for twelve, please.” Shortly after, a truck marked “Specialized Waste Disposal” arrives, and a team of men enter and efficiently remove the corpses, scrub away the blood stains, and erase all traces of the carnage that occurred. In exchange, Wick pays a single gold coin for each body removed. Wick’s return to killing is described as having “returned to the fold” after having experienced “life on the other side.” This language begins to expand the mythology of the world in the second film – body armor is provided by a “tailor”, planning a job is equated linguistically to party planning, with the service facilitated by a Somolier – who asks about what sort of dessert (weapons) will be needed for the end of the night (escape plan). This language establishes a tone which then allows for more fantastic elements, such as a ruling council known as The High Table, and a network of spies and assassins living as homeless people under the supervision of The Bowery King. It also serves to distance the participants from the gruesome reality of their chosen profession, presenting their world as civilized.
Within the underworld of John Wick, the system of payment isn’t the standard anonymous deposit of high (and specific) dollar amounts to offshore bank accounts. Instead there is a tangible, yet undefined value assigned to the services rendered (and despite the variety of services, each ultimately connects to the termination of a life). When Wick first decides to seek revenge and return to a world of killers and killed, he descends into the basement of his home and takes a jackhammer and sledge hammer to a section of the floor, unearthing a locked chest. Within this chest is a case of gold coins (each, presumably, previous payment for services rendered). The use of gold coins serves two functions. It creates a euphemistic distance between the morbid reality of this world. The connection between the value of life and the value of the currency becomes abstracted, and again more civilized. At the same time, that value becomes lessened and more clearly understood for the audience. We each may have a secret number in our head of the value of the life of a stranger. It’s the classic question of how much money would you take in exchange for the death of someone you do not know or care about? Ten thousand dollars? One hundred thousand? A million? In this world, that answer is simplified to this single coin.
The second film adds another object of value – a marker. This is an exchange of a favor, of high value, and at a high cost. Wick gave his marker in exchange for doing one last impossible job which would secure his exit from that life. The value is that he would have to agree to any demand placed by the holder of the marker. The cost for refusal would be his own life. Again, the marker is given tangible form as a talisman signed in blood by the giver, and then cosigned in blood when the favor is called in and fulfilled.
Finally, the laws and culture of John Wick (centered physically in The Continental, a large five-star hotel in the center of New York city) round out the world that is constructed. Some of these have been alluded to, such as the exchange of gold coins and markers, or the High Table, which makes and enforces the laws and functions as a de facto governing entity. The Continental exists as a sort of neutral space – seemingly autonomous from the High Table and ran by The Manager (played by Ian McShane), with guests greeted by the concierge, Charon (sharing a name with the ferryman from Greek mythology who transports the souls of the dead to the underworld).
Killing is forbidden on the grounds of The Continental, and the violation of this central law is punishable by excommunication and death.
All of this barely scratches the surface of the intricacies of the world of John Wick – a world in which hits are communicated through old school operators with a Suicide Girls aesthetic, who send telegrams to another operator with a DOS computer, who enters the hit and then sends a text to the pre-iPhone era flip phones each assassin carries. By constructing this world and placing it alongside our own, the filmmakers add a level of unexpected unfamiliarity to a very familiar story. When done in conjunction with specific and detailed attention paid to the action sequences, the films become an odd mirror-image of the standard action film model of over-the-top fight scenes and gun fights set in a very real world. The result is wholly unexpected and original experience.