How does the world work in the John Wick movies?
There’s a somewhat odd moment in the first John Wick movie that occurs right after the titular assassin has finished dispatching a bunch of goons that tried to ambush him at home. He breathes a sigh of relief, only for the doorbell to ring. As he walks towards the door, the flickering lights of a police car can be seen through the windows, and John (and the audience) brace themselves for another round of violence.
What ensues, instead, is a surprisingly casual conversation.
It’s a bizarre (and humorous) scene, and it raises several questions. Why are John and Jimmy the Cop so chummy? Jimmy obviously sees the corpse on John’s floor, so why does he just walk away? Why doesn’t he call for backup once he returns to his car? And when Jimmy asks John if he’s working again, that presumes that Jimmy knows what John used to do. What does he know that we don’t, and why does he know it?
Is Jimmy a coward, or worse, a corrupt cop in John’s pocket? Or does this odd interaction actually give us some insight into how the world of the John Wick movies actually works?
The first John Wick movie is relatively straightforward. Before she dies, John’s terminally ill wife leaves him a cute puppy so he won’t be alone after she’s gone. But when some Russian gangsters kill the puppy after they break into his house and steal his car, John — once an infamous hitman — comes out of retirement to avenge said puppy in spectacularly bloody fashion. The second John Wick movie builds on this by introducing the High Table, a secretive and powerful group of crime lords that controls the underworld. The third and fourth John Wick movies go even further, fleshing out the High Table’s increasingly elaborate lore.
We’re told that that the High Table contains members of all of the world’s major criminal organizations, including the Camorra, Bratva, and Yakuza. It’s big on ritual and ceremony, throwing around Latin terms like “excommunicado” and giving its representatives lofty-sounding titles like “Adjudicator” and “Harbinger.” It’s ruled by an enigmatic individual called the Elder who can only be found after a sort of holy pilgrimage through the Moroccan desert. The High Table has its own army, its own currency (i.e., the gold coins that John and others exchange throughout the movies), a byzantine bureaucracy, and it oversees the global chain of Continental hotels that serve as neutral ground for assassins like John Wick.
By the fourth John Wick movie, all of that makes the High Table look less and less like a mere group of mob bosses pulling strings in the criminal underworld. Rather, it seems increasingly evident that the High Table, in fact, runs the entire world.
In Mark Millar’s acclaimed Wanted comic, the world’s supervillains used magic and advanced technology to alter reality and erase everyone’s memories of superheroes, thus ensuring their total dominion. While there’s no reason to think that the High Table employed such means — fantastical and divorced from reality as the John Wick movies may be, they’re not sci-fi — the third and fourth movies sure do make it seem like the High Table possesses a similar level of worldwide control and autonomy.
How else to explain why its members, all of whom obviously enjoy extreme levels of rarefied privilege, can conduct High Table business (including duels) in highly prominent places — art museums, cathedrals, and the like — with impunity? Or how it can have a base located in the Eiffel Tower where numerous secretaries and operators monitor the High Table’s various contracts and assignments? Or the existence of its WUXIA radio station? Or all of its other aspects, like its private army?
Once you start down this path, things that seemed odd about the John Wick movies suddenly make more sense. It explains why John’s various enemies (e.g., Viggo Tarasov, Santino D’Antonio) have seemingly infinite men and resources to throw at him. And why bystanders seem surprisingly chill at the sight of people in finely tailored suits shooting, stabbing, kicking, and punching each other in public, be it at a concert, on the subway, or in the middle of traffic at the Arc de Triomphe. In a world ruled by killers, such violence would probably be quite commonplace.
(On a related note, I don’t recall any bystanders getting injured or killed during John Wick shootouts, not even in extremely crowded places. Those aforementioned killers are obviously very precise and professional — which might further serve to inure the public to their activities.)
It explains the movies’ lofty dialog about rules, consequences, and rituals; an organization of thieves and killers would especially need to be bound by centuries-old codes in order to ensure that business is conducted smoothly. And finally, it would certainly explain John and Jimmy’s interaction in the first movie. Jimmy’s not necessarily a corrupt cop; he’s just keenly aware of who’s really in charge of the world and of John’s unique — and ultra-deadly — place in it.
Even with all of its world building, however, the John Wick franchise still raises plenty of unanswered questions.
If the world’s ruled by its most violent and notorious criminals, then how do politics work? Do election disputes, international grievances, and trade deals get hammered out by hitmen like John Wick? Do political concepts like nations, borders, and democracy still matter when criminal organizations rule everything?
How about religion? John visits several Orthodox churches throughout the four movies — he was born in Russia and raised by the Ruska Roma — but they’re all fronts for the Ruska Roma’s criminal enterprises. Do other religious buildings and institutions (e.g., Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, Shinto shrines) function similarly? Just how cozy are the world’s religions with the High Table, and to what extent does that coziness impact their beliefs, ministries, and governance? (In other words, how can you effectively preach the Sixth Commandment if you’re in tight with the High Table?)
Thinking of Jimmy and his fellow officers, does law enforcement and the legal system even make sense in such a world? Can it? If buildings can be demolished at the whims of the High Table, which does occur in the fourth John Wick movie, what does that imply for building codes, health and safety regulations, and other forms of government bureaucracy?
Last but not least, what of the insurance industry? Will your auto policy cover the damages caused by hitting an assassin who was battling in the street, or does that require a special rider? Do life insurance policies take into account getting caught in a crossfire? What do people’s health insurance premiums look like? Or does the High Table subsidize healthcare as a way to offset any collateral damage?
To be fair, nobody involved in the John Wick franchise — be it creator Derek Kolstad, director Chad Stahelski, or even Keanu Reeves — has ever claimed to be developing a coherent or consistent mythology. In an interview prior to the fourth movie’s release, Stahelski revealed their random approach to developing the movies’ world:
The way Keanu and I approach all these is we do them one at a time. We did the first one thinking we’d never work again. Then you do the second one. You think, “Okay, dodged a bullet on that one. We pulled it off.” The third one, same; we get done with the third one and we’re like, “Okay, we’re good. That’s it. We’re out.“
Then it takes a little bit of time, and we start missing the world. You start looking at things differently, and you start going, “Well, I coulda, woulda, shoulda … We didn’t do this. Maybe …” We got done with number three and looked back a couple years ago, and we’re like, “Okay, we have one, two, and three.” They were all done independently. We didn’t think there was going to be a tie-in. We thought we were done, but we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we tied everything together, if we tried to achieve all the different themes we took and wrapped it up to make it look like we actually thought about what we were doing [and there] was actually a plan?”
[A]s far as a big road map of how big the world goes, we didn’t come from a Game of Thrones novel or a book series, so we didn’t have it quite laid out. I wish we did. It would be so much easier. Each time, we try to expand based on the characters, so we don’t have this big road map that we go in on. We just take these characters and give you enough of the world that would suffice to understand the character.
Stahelski confirmed this approach in another interview when asked about the possibility of a fifth John Wick movie:
We’re going to give John Wick a rest. I’m sure the studio has a plan. If everyone loves it and it goes kooky, then we’ll take a quiet minute. Wicks always, for some weird reason, always get the latest release date in Japan. It’s always like, three months later. If it’s the same this time, we’ll do a Japanese tour and release the movie in September. Keanu and I will take the long trip to Tokyo, we’ll sit in the Imperial Hotel Scotch Bar and go, “What do you think?” We’ll have a couple 20-year-old whiskies and write some ideas on napkins. If those ideas stick, maybe we’ll make a movie.
Haphazard world building aside, the John Wick movies still create a fascinating cinematic universe that’s both beholden to its obvious influences (e.g., Hong Kong action movies, samurai films, Spaghetti Westerns, classic noir) and very much its own thing. It’s a universe brought to life through ancient-sounding rituals and ceremonies, gorgeous style and production design, and the elevation of “heroic bloodshed” and “honor among thieves” tropes to hyperreal levels.
None of that’s exactly necessary in order to enjoy the visceral thrill of seeing a well-dressed John Wick slice, dice, and shoot his way through endless waves of nameless goons. Some will no doubt see the movies’ unanswered questions as plot holes and lazy writing. But as I’ve watched the movies, those questions give them an air of mystery, intrigue, and ambiguity that’s fun to think about while considering the possible ramifications.
Until John Wick has to take on yet another wave of nameless goons, that is. And then nothing else matters.