The Reading Room

Doing Justice to John Wick

The John Wick franchise is better known for its award-winning stunts than its screenplays. The plots seem thin as a garotte, while the dialogue focuses on guns and Wick's ability to kill with a mere pencil. Yet the March release of John Wick: Chapter 4 is eagerly anticipated, as are two spinoff series: The Continental and Ballerina.   
To understand why, I sat down with Adam Smith to watch Chapters 1-3. While Smith once referred to himself as a beau in nothing but his books, he admired Wick's assassin chic and, even more, the films' exploration of resentment and justice. In fact, Smith observed that the films function in the same way as the eighteenth-century plays he discusses in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): to teach through sympathy.
Smith opens TMS by insisting that we are naturally interested in the fortunes of others. When we see someone suffering, we yearn to know what has happened to him. That's just where John Wick begins.
An SUV crashes into a wall and a man falls outside the driver's door, clutching his bleeding chest. He digs out his phone. Yet instead of calling 911, he watches a video of a woman talking  sweetly before he collapses to the pavement. And I ask, "What has happened to this man?"
The next scene takes us back to the start of John's misfortunes: his beloved wife (from the video) has died, leaving him bereft. He places the bracelet he had given her on his nightstand; he mourns at her funeral; and he embraces the hope represented by a puppy, Daisy, who is delivered as a parting gift from his wife: "You need something to love."  
The protagonist takes the puppy for drives in his '69 Mustang and eventually lets it snuggle in his bed. Wick wants what Smith identifies as the source of happiness: tranquility. So we sympathize with his grief and then his resentment when the spoiled son of a crime lord kills the dog and steals his car. We need justice, not stoical apathy.
Smith argues that resentment plays a role in securing justice. We want the offender to be punished and "to grieve for the particular wrong which we have suffered from him." Gratifying this passion tends "to produce all the political ends of punishment: the correction of the criminal, and the example to the public" (TMS II.i.6).
For Wick, however, the stakes are higher because he performed an "impossible task" to leave the assassins' world and marry. His pursuit of justice ironically returns him to a realm where murder is literally everyone's business. 
When the thug's father, Viggo Tarasov, learns of his son's actions, he observes, "it's not what you did but who you did it to." If he has no sense of the wrongs of murder and theft, his Smithian sense of estimative justice is high. John Wick is the ultimate monster, "Baba Yaga," after the witch of Russian fairy tales.    
In place of the rule of law, these assassins have "rules." "Without them," opines the head of New York's assassins-only Continental Hotel, "we'd live with the animals." The rules are that one must not conduct "business" (murder) on the grounds of the Continental, and one must honor a "marker" given to someone else, who may claim any favor whatsoever. 
Wick succeeds in defeating the Tarasovs, but in doing so opens himself to the demands of the crime lord Santino d'Antonio. He produces Wick's marker and insists that Wick kill Santino's sister, Gianna, who is a member of the council of criminal lords, or High Table. This is the focus of John Wick: Chapter 2
We sympathize with Wick's sense of injustice: he does not want to kill Gianna, who sees him and commits suicide. He does want to execute Santino d'Antonio, who tries to murder Wick to disguise his own role in the transaction. When Wick slays Santino d'Antonio on the grounds of the Continental, he becomes "excommunicado" with a bounty of $15 million.
Here Smith and I pause over our punch. Why do we continue watching the bloodbath? Smith suggests that one reason is that self-command is a virtue that "draws some degree of favourable regard even upon those of the greatest criminals" (TMS VI.iii.6). We admire Wick's persistence: he never stops.   
Moreover, we sympathize with Wick's predicament within an unjust system. In John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, the High Table's adjudicator seeks to punish Wick and everyone who assists him, whether through sheltering him or offering weapons or medical aid. The "rules" of the assassins' world leave no room for individuals' distributive justice.
We may never face assassins in a hall of mirrors (Chapter 2), and it is unlikely that we will battle commandos in a hotel while listening to Vivaldi (Chapter 3). Yet John Wick's struggles—loss, injustice, resentment—are all too familiar and evoke our sympathy, while his self-command retains our respect.  
Perhaps in John Wick: Chapter 4, our protagonist will finally find justice. Adam Smith and I can hardly wait.