The John Wick movies follows one rule: the rule of consequence. Across the franchise the characters break rules - and suffer deadly consequences. But what do the movies say about whether you should live your life according to a set of rules? How does that work out for John Wick (Keanu Reeves) himself?
John Wick: Ruled by Consequence
The John Wick movies are ruled by consequence.
In this franchise, we can be certain that for every action, there will be a reaction, and for every rule that is broken, there will be a deadly consequence.
"You dishonor the marker, you die. You kill the holder of the marker, you die. You run? You die."—Winston in John Wick: Chapter 2
This guiding principle applies to everything we see in the plot about a deadly assassin getting sucked back into the world he tried to leave. And it also extends behind the camera. The filmmakers and stars hold themselves to strict creative rules which define the form of these tightly structured, rigorously rehearsed and choreographed films.
So you might say the John Wick franchise is an ode to discipline. It’s discipline that elevates the movies above many of their action contemporaries, and it’s discipline that makes John Wick the very best in his business. Yet this dogged devotion to rules pretty much ruins Jon’s life, dragging him further and further into the mire he desperately wants to escape.
“People keep asking if I'm back. And I haven't really had an answer. But now, yeah, I'm thinking I'm back!”—John Wick in John Wick (2014)
So at their essence, these movies are an investigation into what it really means to live your life according to a set of personal laws.
Does his extreme rule-following make John Wick a role model or a cautionary tale? Here’s our Take.
A World of Rules and Consequences
We may think of contract killing as a lawless, chaotic enterprise. But the assassin underworld John Wick exists within is defined by rules that members of this society respect and abide by. In the first movie, we’re introduced to the Continental, a ritzy hotel for assassins in which no business (i.e. murder) is permitted to be conducted. As the world expands in Chapters 2 and 3 to include the mysterious High Table, we get more insight into how a myriad of archaic regulations govern the actions of every person in this ecosystem. And on top of this structure, individuals are bound by their word and the choices they made in their pasts. “Markers"— a form of blood oath that assassins swear to each other—must always be repaid.
“For a man to grant a marker to another is to bind a soul to a blood oath.”—Winston in John Wick: Chapter 2
The filmmakers' commitment to this central theme means that nearly every single plot development in the franchise stems from someone breaking a rule and suffering the consequences.
“Two rules that cannot be broken, Jonathan. No blood on continental grounds, and every marker must be honored.”—Winston in John Wick: Chapter 2
Once Viggo Tarasov’s greatest assassin, John was offered the rare chance to exit this game on the condition that he kill all Viggo’s rivals in one night. To Viggo's surprise, John pulled off the impossible, so the agreement was honored. John would be left alone to live the quiet life. What sets off the plot of these movies is that Viggo’s son Iosef unknowingly violates this accord.
That action leads to John raining hell down on Tarasov’s entire operation. Thus, movie one is entirely structured around one character breaking a rule that he, admittedly, didn’t know about, and everyone suffering the consequences for it.
There are a couple of interesting implications that follow from all this. First of all, note that Iosef's ignorance of the rule he broke doesn’t matter here.
“It’s not what you did, son, that angers me so. It’s who you did it to.”—Viggo in John Wick
Intentionality is irrelevant. If you transgress by accident or on purpose, the outcome is exactly the same, and it makes sense, if your society depends on strict adherence to law that you can only take into account an individual’s manifest actions. This ignoring of intentions serves to preserve order in the assassin world, but it doesn’t allow for fairness, humanity or mercy. These things are discarded, in service of law.
Second, it’s not just the rule-breaker himself who’s punished. The entire community feels the pain.
“So you can either hand over your son, or you can die screaming alongside him!”—John in John Wick
If the balance of peace is to be based on shared laws, everyone must invest in their enforcement, and that means everyone must suffer when they’re broken. Thus this society's status quo is actually very fragile, dependent on total group obedience, which explains why it responds so brutally to transgressions.
"An eye for an eye, John. You know how it goes."—Cassian in John Wick Chapter 2
The High Table is even shown to exert its influence over the official authorities of our public world. If this power system can reduce even the police, the symbols of the rule of law itself, to tacit sanctioners of violence and destruction, that implies that no individual really has any choice but to serve the ways of this assassin’s world. What emerges from this picture is not a collection of human beings with agency, but just the many parts of a larger machine.
John Wick: Chapter 2 digs into the rules and consequences theme even more explicitly. After John comes out of retirement for several nights of bloody vengeance, he is seen to have returned to the business of killing. This brings Italian mafia boss Santino D'Antonio back to America in order to call in the ‘marker’ he has over John.
"This is your blood. You came to me. I helped you. If you don’t do this, you know the consequences."—Santino D’Antonio in John Wick: Chapter 2
Because John owes him, he can make John do anything for him.
The ending of Chapter 2 sees John himself breaking a cardinal rule, when he kills Santino in the Continental hotel. After this transgression, Winston then gives John an hour’s grace period to get away before every assassin in the city comes for him.
The entire plot of John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum subsequently deals with the fallout of the decisions made and rules broken in Chapter 2.
"A fourteen million dollar bounty on his head. And everyone in this city wants a piece of it."—Winston in John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum
Winston is in the crosshairs of the High Table, who have sent The Adjudicator to the city to investigate his part in John’s escape. Even the Bowery King, who helped John in Chapter 2 by giving him a gun with seven bullets, suffers seven cuts of a sword.
There are many more examples of characters suffering the consequences of disregard for the rules, and while the theme might be as obvious as a shotgun blast to the face, it gives the movies a very rigid structure, which ensures we understand everyone’s motivations at all times and the films don't feel chaotic or messy, despite the incredible levels of action and carnage on display. Meanwhile, on the deeper level, what does this focus on rules and consequences mean in the John Wick movies? The lesson we can read into these films is that ultimately that level of commitment to rules is detrimental over time
John Wick is the very best at what he does, feared and respected in equal measure by the assassin underworld.
“Well, John wasn't exactly The Boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman.”—Viggo in John Wick
And that’s thanks to his strict adherence to the rules of his training. As a professional, he thrived within the structure this gave his life. But as a person he suffers from his lack of human agency. He's more like a robot or a slave. Fundamentally, John never wanted to go back to the assassin life. After he’s dragged back in, the rules consistently make him act against his best interests. For every bullet he fires and every assassin he kills, he is dooming himself to more and more extreme consequences.
"No one gets out and comes back without repercussions."—Santino D’Antonio in John Wick: Chapter 2
He feels he has no choice but to try and kill his way to a normal life again, as antithetical as that may seem.
Bowery King: "Your descent into hell begins here, Mr. Wick. Earl will guide you. Do be careful on your way down. Oh, and remember, you owe me."
John: "You don’t want me owing you."—in John Wick: Chapter 2
Yet while Jon believes he has no agency due to the ways of this world...
John: "I’m not that guy anymore."
Santino: "You are always that guy, John."—in John Wick: Chapter 2
...there's an interesting discussion to be had about how conscious he is of his own decisions and motivations.
"There’s a part of John Wick that's like he doesn’t care about the consequences in a way because he’ll deal with it when he deals with it,"—Keanu Reeves for VIBE Magazine
Whether John is fighting for revenge or fighting for his life, Reeves’ take, then, is that John is reactive, not proactive, and is his own worst enemy, which implies that John does have a choice in all of this. It's just that the course of action he chooses is bad for him. John is reacting to things exactly as he has been conditioned to by his assassin training.
"Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all."—John in John Wick: Chapter 2
It would be better for his health, and the health of everyone around him, to diffuse the situation by removing himself from the equation entirely. But in light of Reeves' comments, a deeper reading of his psychology could be that he has re-awoken the demon inside himself, and subconsciously he's driven by the fact that he enjoys what he does.
Some fans have dubbed John Wick an ‘artist of death.' And he's undoubtedly the best there is at finding novel ways to kill people.
"I once saw him kill three men in a bar, with a pencil."—Viggo in John Wick
He might tell himself he is doing all this for the memory of his wife, or simply to survive, or because he has to. But maybe, deep down, he’s addicted to the violence and death. John Wick could never truly live a normal life.
The Rules of Filmmaking: Controlled Chaos
The theme of rules and consequences extends beyond the fiction of the John Wick franchise to the creation and form of the movies. The direction, cinematography, and action choreography are all governed by a strict code of rules.
“I mean the director wants to make it immersive, wants to make it like a performance, so there’s really long takes.”—Keanu Reeves on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Director Chad Stahelski and his creative team film every action scene in long, extended takes that show the insanely precise fight choreography in all its wonderful detail. Stahelski never chooses quick cuts, obfuscates his action, or resorts to a shaky cam sequence to fake excitement or intensity.
Instead, he trains his actors for months before they shoot, working on choreography, and the grueling rehearsal period means on set, every sequence is captured in as few takes as possible. Every gunshot, every punch, and every kick matters. The Wick movies feel like controlled chaos. The camera work is so precise that the audience always knows what is happening, why it is happening, and who it is happening to.
Stahelski also cast one of the world's most physically dedicated actors to lead the franchise. Stahelski was Keanu Reeves' stunt double for The Matrix movies, so their relationship goes back a long way, and it’s easy to see why the two men work so well together. One of the main selling points of the Wick movies is Keanu’s commitment to doing as much of the action as possible.
“I do probably like 85-90% of the action.”—Keanu Reeves on The Ellen Show
It means the audience always sees it is recognizably him in the action scenes and not a stunt performer.
Videos of Keanu practicing on a gun range demonstrating his adeptness with firearms went viral, and you can watch footage of him learning the complicated fight choreography with martial arts teachers. It’s been said that Keanu will train for eight hours a day for six months in preparation for a Wick movie, which is far more than the customary eight weeks that most actors prep for a blockbuster. Stahelski and Reeves are the ultimate action movie professionals because they follow the rules they set up for themselves, approaching the John Wick movies with the same level of commitment and insane precision as the assassins in their movies. If they ever broke their rules, the consequence would be a film that just didn't feel like the trademark controlled chaos that defines John Wick.
"Best way to fake being good is just to be good. And that takes sweat, blood, and tears. It's a level of commitment that is not normal."—Chad Stahelski, Director
The Human Consequence
Fusion of form and content is the gold standard of creative work, and by embodying the discipline that defines John Wick himself, these movies stand apart from most of their action movie contemporaries. We might extract some professional advice from their example, too. Evidently, diligently sticking to a well-chosen set of rules lays the foundation for career excellence.
Yet the moral of the John Wick story lies in the personal implications that allegiance to rules and consequences has on a human being. What good does it do him to be the greatest assassin the world has ever known, if he’s constantly fighting for his life and desperately trying to evade the dreaded consequences of his actions?
We can learn from John that, while a code of laws will help in our pursuit of excellence, we should first step back and make sure we’re pursuing something worth being excellent at. It may feel all-important to rise to the top of your field and chase machine -like technical perfection, but if what you do has a negative impact on the world, then isn’t it worse to be better at it?
This deadly killer is no hero. He’s a warning to ambitious workaholics everywhere. An inhuman existence of cold rigidity and regularity will destroy you from the inside and from without, no matter how great you are at your job.
“This life follows you. It clings to you, infecting everyone who comes close to you.”—Viggo in John Wick
What John Wick needs is a little bigger-picture perspective, to stop being reactive, and feeling like he has no choice because we’re not robots. We always have a choice. Rules were made to be adapted and updated, according to context. And if the rulebook makes no sense, then we shouldn’t be in that particular game at all.
Works Cited & Consulted:
Price, Jeremy. “Exclusive: ‘John Wick’ Stuntmen On Training Keanu Reeves And Filming Extreme Action Scenes.” Maxim, 17 May 2019.
Rosario, Richy. “Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry Talk The Virtues And Action In 'John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.'” Vibe, 15 May 2019.