Keanu Reeves stars in another brilliantly choreographed action film. But it was hard to stomach days after another school shooting in my hometown.
As I rewatched John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 before seeing the third installment of the Keanu Reeves franchise last week, I couldn’t get this interview between CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and a 6th grade survivor of the STEM school shooting in Colorado out of my head. She’s in tears as this rosy-cheeked boy explains how he was terrified and “ready to go down fighting if he was going to go down.”
The incident to which he refers happened on May 7, when two gunman entered a Highlands Ranch school 20 minutes from where I grew up, killed one student and wounded eight others. With the images and interviews fresh on my mind, it was hard to focus on Reeves walking into a crowded club in John Wick: Chapter 2, gunning down dozens of people. I had to look away, and I dreaded seeing the third film on that Thursday evening.
Because I had seen both John Wick films, I was familiar with the ultra-violent revenge fantasy. I knew it had been accused of Hollywood gun pornography, yet I still accepted it as it was: entertainment—nothing more than a popcorn action film. But, in this viewing with the very real-life effects of gun violence fresh on my mind, it was impossible to treat this film as escapism.
This isn’t my won’t someone think of the children moment, but a reckoning with my own gut reaction to movie violence in a world that’s more fucked up than the fantasy one we create.
I vividly remember the first time my school was put on lockdown. I was a 9-year-old third grader in an elementary school down the road from Columbine High School, and the idea of a shooting where we go to class made no sense to me. I was confused, and didn’t understand why my mom was crying when she picked up my sister and me from school. Since then, there have been eight mass shootings in Colorado, where I lived for 25 years. One of these was the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012—again, just down the road from my parents’ house. I was in California for an internship at the time, but when I eventually saw The Dark Knight Rises in the theater, it was a chilling experience.
So, when I sat down in the theater last Thursday to see John Wick: Chapter 3, I was uncomfortable, unprepared, and filled with dread. The film is exactly what anyone who’s seen the first two should expect. It’s two hours of action. It’s non-stop violence. And when it reaches the climactic final battle, Ian McShane’s Winston asks Wick what he needs.
“Guns, lots of guns,” Wick responds.
The film concludes with another mass shootout and dozens of headshots—deaths by pistols, and shotguns, and assault rifles. Why, suddenly, after enjoying Hollywood violence all these years could I not take it anymore?
It’s partly because the horror of the STEM shooting was still so fresh, but it’s not just that John Wick: Chapter 3 is poorly timed to a recent shooting.
This year alone there have been eight school shootings at high school or college campuses and 116 mass shootings in total. The horrifying truth is that in America, John Wick could come out any week of the year and still happen close to a recent mass shooting. I’ve finally reached the point where I can no longer disassociate romanticized depictions of vengeance with what is happening in schools and churches across America—or down the street from where I grew up.
If film is no longer where we go to escape these horrors, it could be a place where even our blockbusters strive to better understand it.
I’m not saying the violence in John Wick: Chapter 3 is problematic or responsible for mass shootings in our country, nor am I suggesting anyone should feel bad about enjoying this movie or others like it. Revenge fantasies are entertainment, and they’ve been part of Hollywood for decades.
But for me, it’s becoming harder to come to terms with on-screen gun violence in a country defined by real-life tragedies. That’s specifically the case with a movie like John Wick, where the overall plot involves a violent revenge fantasy. Sure, John Wick is a character who, despite being a hardened killer, is a reformed wannabe pacifist in search of a peaceful life. But we’re never exposed to this emotional struggle or his battle with the violent life he’s forced to lead. For the most part, John Wick just silently and effectively kills in order to achieve the tranquil life of which he dreams.The movie exists solely for the action and violence. It has nothing to say beyond the excellently choreographed fight scenes. It doesn’t bother to wrestle with the effects—physically or psychologically—of gun violence.
There are, of course, countless violent movies that choose to ignore the emotional fallout of gun violence. John McClane seems to delight in killing terrorists in Die Hard, but his violence serves a purpose: to rescue scores of people from their captors. The carnage in John Wick exists as a form of pornography—it’s violence for the sake of violence.
I found myself wondering how I could enjoy something like the excellent fifth episode of Barry Season Two, but not the mindless entertainment of John Wick. That’s because Barry forces us to confront—on a deeper level—violence, whereas John Wick makes it look cool.
There will likely be a John Wick: Chapter 4, not to mention a spate of other revenge movies. Maybe it’s time for this type of cinema to evolve, to wrestle with what’s happening in our country in an artistic way beyond simply seeing how many people one guy can kill in a brutal three-movie rampage. A number of exceptional movies and TV shows already do. Why not John Wick?
We can still have these beautifully choreographed fight scenes. We can still have action. We can even still have guns, but perhaps we challenge these stories to say and do more. John Wick: Chapter 3 was a well-made movie—a great movie by critical standards that will haul in major box-office receipts—but perhaps those fight scenes on the backs of motorcycles or shootouts in buildings and courtyards could be consequential and meaningful.
The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that mass shootings—including those inside America’s schools—will keep happening. If film is no longer where we go to escape these horrors, it could be a place where even our blockbusters strive to better understand it.