John Wick - why revenge stories are so very, very satisfying
John Wick, a new action thriller starring Keanu Reeves, is released this Friday (April 10) – and it rocks like a hurricane. Keanu plays the titular JW, a Mafia hitman/enforcer who goes straight after falling in love with Bridget Moynahan. She then dies of a disease but leaves John a puppy as a reminder of their love, and his own innate decency.
When a Russian gangster played by Alfie Allen (yes, really – just go with it) kills the dog, John is set on an inexorable campaign of bloody vengeance. Keanu – all burliness, beard and permanent scowl – is magnetic in the role of Punishment Machine, and the action scenes are tremendous.
The film dispenses with that modern movie trick of fast edits and wonky camera angles, instead giving us lots of long-shots and brilliantly choreographed fights. And Keanu – unlike the usual shrimps they cast in Hollywood – genuinely looks like a man who can kick some ass.
But the best thing about John Wick is the fact that it’s a revenge story. There’s something incredibly satisfying, even cathartic, about violent movies where the bad guys get what’s coming.
If I was pretentious, I would now make the point that vengeance is as old a narrative staple as love, death or the meaning of life. The Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Gothic horror novels… pick your era and genre, and you’ll find a classic tale of wrong-doings being righted.
As the old saying goes, life gives us the law – fiction gives us justice. And revenge, ultimately, is nothing more than justice delivered outside the normal social parameters (and with the added bonus of bone-breaking fisticuffs and flashy gun-play).
The great American novelist Don DeLillo once wrote: “To avenge, in a sense, was simply to equalise; to seek a requisite balance.” That’s what it’s all about – resetting the cosmic balance. The old Greeks were big on that, too: the universe had to be restored to moral equilibrium in the aftermath of grievous sin, and revenge was sometimes, regrettably, the only way to do it.
In real life, a lot of the time, we don’t get that rebalancing. The bad guys often get away with it. The victims are unavenged. There is no karma, no payback.
And that really, really sucks – which is why we need revenge stories. They’re a psychic and emotional release valve; we’d go crazy otherwise.
I’ve written at least three books with vengeance as a central theme, and several other stories which touch on it to some extent. Does this make me a bad person? Am I a savage, a Neanderthal, a potential psychopath because I holler at the screen and raise my fist as Keanu/John cuts a bloody swath through ranks of criminal low-lives?
Obviously I don’t condone revenge in real life, I respect the law. But that’s what we have stories for: they’re the place where our barely submerged dreams of payback are played out.
We know these are just actors, nobody’s really getting hurt here, so there’s a psychological “remove” that allows us to cheer on John Wick, or whoever, as he brings the pain. Righteous pain, which makes the universe whole again. Yeah, those Greeks knew what they were talking about.