Some possible spoilers for John Wick and John Wick Chapter 2 ahead. Be advised.
The neon hellscape of the John Wick films is a fast and brutal love letter to the noir genre and world mythologies. While both films have very basic premises, there is much to be said about their themes and framing. Well beyond the heavy soundtrack, wild action sequences, and the idea of there being a bizarre set of rules and codes of conduct shared among criminals and assassins is this unifying idea about the mythologizing of underworld activity.
It is no mistake that folklore, mythology, and superstitions feed into the world of John Wick, that the concierge at the Continental is named after the Greek afterlife’s ferryman Charon, or that Ares, Santino’s chief enforcer in Chapter 2, shares her name with a god of war. John himself is nicknamed The Boogeyman, a monster believed to share its name with the hobgoblin, an Old English house spirit. The current interpretation of this figure is something that abducts and eats children who misbehave. He feeds into his Boogeyman role well, disappearing in and out of shadows and spending both movies hunting after naughty young mobsters.
Among members of the Russian mafia, however, Wick’s given the nickname of Baba Yaga, an old witch who lives in a chicken-legged house and rides around in a mortar and pestle chasing after anyone who crosses her path. One interpretation of Yaga is that her home, hidden deep in the darkest woods, is surrounded by a fence of human bones. This is a fitting image, given that John Wick lives in isolation, and is an old hitman with a lot of red on his ledger.
When the connections to folklore started becoming more and more prevalent, it occurred to me that even John’s dogs and car carry strong imagery. In Western Europe, there were a multitude of stories about a force called The Wild Hunt, black-clad huntsmen led by the old god Wodan AKA Odin, accompanied by massive dark hounds and riding on great black or white horses (depending on which interpretation you read). The Hunt itself was supposed to be a herald of disaster, war, and plague, and that anyone who witnessed them would likely die. Wodan’s Nordic counterpart Odin was said to be accompanied by two wolves and rode an eight-legged horse.
Though John is named after the Boogeyman and Baba Yaga, much of his appearance borrows from the Wild Hunt. John wears a lot of black, which matches the colour of his car, a 1969 Mustang (the mustang itself being a breed of horse). What’s more, John is accompanied by two dogs, albeit at different times in his life – a beagle, a type of hound bred for hunting hares, and a pit bull, a dog bred for blood-sports. What’s more, John is more than a silent killer. Like war god Wodan, he is a violent harbinger of destruction, murdering anyone who gets in his way and sparing only a select few as it suits his needs.
The overall look of both John Wick films does more than add an eerie aesthetic, contributing to the mysterious world of the films’ hoodlums and killers. Dark hallways with hints of blue light, gothic antechambers illuminated with candles, faded orange glows in old buildings, underground bathhouses coloured like blacklight paintings; notice how these lighting and colour schemes often appear as John Wick is out on missions or fraternizing with other ne’er-do-wells.
This interplay is perfect for the dark and colourful world of criminal activity. Criminals and folklore creatures are sometimes predatory in nature, or seek out those who bother them in their domain, or are bound by rules or codes of honour. There is even a shared language here; the realm of criminal activity is openly referred to as an underworld, a place depicted in myths and religions as a subterranean den for the dead and damned, ruled over by hosts of devils and horrifying deities. As such, it’s like John, our good psychopomp, descends into the underworld itself during these moments.
Criminals and bandits occupy a similar space in our minds when we think of impossible-to-believe figures. Consider Adam Worth, the inspiration for Professor Moriarty, a bank robber who escaped prison and became the anonymous founder of a massive criminal syndicate; Irish-American gangster Hell-Cat Maggie who filed her teeth into fangs and fought with brass claws; or Australian gangland queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, whose exploits were depicted the great historical comic series Rejected Princesses. This is to say nothing of criminals like Charles Manson or anarchist hacker Joseph “Doctor Chaos” Konopka, who themselves almost seem like comic book supervillains.
Hearing stories about gangsters and murderers brings us into the same world of terrifying creatures and mischievous spirits. We can hardly believe that someone could rob a bank or commit some kind of horrible crime, that someone is capable of leaving their empathy at the door. As such, we call these people monsters and animals, and try our hardest to distance ourselves from them as much as possible.
John Wick tells us we can’t. John Wick reminds us that these monsters do not exist in the realm of the metaphysical. They are as human as we are, and that is a difficult thing to believe.
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