There’s a whole class of fairy tale that opens with a man offending a witch. Maybe he’s been stealing her prized cabbages for his pregnant wife. Maybe he’s refused to invite her to the baptism of his child. Maybe he just marries her. But after this grand offense takes place, the witch enacts her chilly vengeance on the man. And usually, all hell breaks loose.
Fairy tales have the dubious honor of both being distinctive and blurry — so culturally common that their parts are recognizable everywhere, so ubiquitous that their distribution can make their reference almost invisible. We know what a fairy tale looks like because we’ve all seen those princess movies, but not every princess movie is a fairy tale and not every fairy tale takes place in a mouldering castle. It’s rare to see a film that wears the shape of a fairy tale as obviously as the John Wick movies, and it’s a decision that gives them both their ruthless simplicity and distinctive texture. John Wick’s narrative devotion to fairy tales does not rest in pulling from just one story, though. The series, as a (now) three-part story utilizes fairy-tale as a genre.
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I’ll Get You, My Pretty
The John Wick movies dwell in an invisible world that surrounds our own, a world that operates with its own kingdoms and laws. If the appeal of John Wick is watching a powerful outsider wreak havoc upon this invisible world, John Wick: Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum provide us with the terrible joy of watching our protagonist be drawn ever into it. Wick is himself constantly recast within the fairy tale. He is always the greatest living assassin, but over the course of the three-chapter-story we see him brought into the structure of power. His journey as a character sees him move from a witch to a disgraced knight and eventually the knight of another kingdom entirely.
In John Wick, the most grave transgression is to break an agreement, and these films show us the escalating consequences of this transgression. In John Wick, the inciting action is the Russian mob’s violation of the tacit arrangement of John’s retirement. “I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation of what we are now,” Viggo, the head of the Russian mob muses before his ill-fated, foolish son. Following the night of his “impossible task,” John is retired and no longer subject to the violent whims of the Kingdom of Crime.
John Wick’s nom de guerre is “Baba Yaga,” which is translated awkwardly as “The Boogeyman.” This translation attempts to gloss the fact that Baba Yaga is not a ghost and certainly not a man — never a man but for the singular instance of John Wick. It’s not that there’s no masculine analogue within Eastern-European storytelling, either. Koschei the Deathless is as iconic, wrathful, and nigh-immortal as Baba Yaga herself. Naming John Wick for Baba Yaga instead of Koschei places him inside a lineage of feminine power, feminine wrath, and feminine antagonism to the governance of men. John Wick is not wronged like a man. John Wick is wronged like a witch. John Wick is wronged like the only woman the king fears, and the only person who can truly hold the king to his word.
John Wick shows us the consequences of breaking a personal bond. The following movies show us the consequences of breaking bonds with systems. In illustrating these consequences, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 show us a glimpse of the life John led before his retirement. If in John Wick the eponymous hitman is a witch, in chapters two and three, he is a hero; a knight exultant and a knight exiled. John Wick does not tell one fairy tale. It tells fairy tales as a form.
Chapter 2 sees John pulled back into the world he has retired from, albeit reluctantly. In order to perform his “impossible task” and exit the kingdom of crime, John gave a head of the Camorra a “marker,” a token so intimate it bears his thumbprint and blood. When John refuses to honor this marker, it invites the destruction of his house. John cannot deny the quest he has been proffered — the knight has his duty. Chapter 2 revels in John as the knight triumphal. Even as hordes of similarly talented assassins assail him from all sides, Chapter 2 emphasizes that this is a view of John from within the kingdom, with access to all of his resources.
Chapter 3, of course, takes John into disgraced exile. Before, he was pursued but sanctuary was available to him within the Continental Hotel and in the company of powerful. Now, he is a man without a country. This status brings him before a king. The powers that govern the kingdom of crime answer to one man — The Elder. We are shown two men on thrones in John Wick, and one of them is this Elder, a man who John must journey deep into the desert, following a star and traveling to the end of his endurance, to meet. The Elder sits on a throne, John prone before him.
“I will serve. I will be of service,” is a phrase that peppers the third movie. Fealty is the currency that powers any kingdom, but especially one built on promises. Chapter 3 explicitly asks its players to swear fealty — a mechanism that unshakably specific to the feudal systems that foreground our ideas of a fairy tale. John Wick kneels before his king, as his peers kneel before emissaries of the king, and offers his service as the price for his life. For a while longer, John acts as servant to this king, before he is called into the service of the only king explicitly called such in the series — the Bowery King.
Once Upon a Time…
The physical world of the John Wick series is littered with the detritus of fairy tales. John’s wife is denoted continuously with daisies. When John receives a card from her, the card bears bright gerbera daisies, and when he receives the dog she left him for companionship, the dog is not only named Daisy, but the tag on her collar is shaped like one too. When John contemplates her, looking at the bracelet he once gave her, the bracelet is a chain of daisies, petal to petal. Botanic resurrection shows up in fairy tales like a weed — the tree on the mother’s grave that grants wishes in Aschenputtel, the eponymous Juniper Tree that forms the site of revenge and rebirth. John’s wife is memorialized in daisies, and in remembering her through them, she is reborn.
The physical world becomes an index to the genre itself. The physical currency of the Kingdom of Crime is itself heavy gold coins, the kind a dragon would be draped over in a hoard. To visit the king in Chapter 2, John must journey far to the strange East — a Casablanca rendered as vivid orientalist fantasy instead of one of the foremost financial centers of an entire continent. Narrative becomes a force not unlike gravity that shapes the physical destiny of John Wick’s world.
John Wick doesn’t feel like other action movies. It’s not just the intensity of its violence — John Wick makes conscious narrative and physical choices that place it in better lineage with “Vasilla the Beautiful” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” than Die Hard or even Atomic Blonde. The result is thus far something truly different, a rare piece of work that we at once know and cannot see coming.