I am very, very excited for tonight. I’ve got my tickets to go see John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum and am prepared to watch Keanu Reeves do what he does best on the silver screen: massacre his way through dozens of armed assailants at once. The first film, directed by Chad Stahelski, one of Reeves’ stunt doubles for the Matrix films, became an unexpected hit at the box office in late 2014. Its follow-up cranked up the stakes to a lethal voltage in February 2017. The latest incarnation of our cyberpunk Messiah has garnered a massive cult following and seems to once again be marking a shift in cinematic fight choreography.
But if you’re familiar with the series, I don’t blame you if you’re eyeballing this article with skepticism–sure, John Wick is badass. It’s stylish as fuck. It’s reunited Morpheus and Neo for the first time on screen since 2003. But it’s definitely not cyberpunk (or even nowpunk) in terms of tech and ideology, so why am I covering it here? Am I just abusing my position at Neon Dystopia to proclaim my love for the series because I can’t get an article like this published elsewhere? Am I blurring the lines of cyberpunk for my own gains??
Well, dear reader, yes and no. As we like to say ‘round these parts, cyberpunk is now, and I intend to prove that both through visuals, plot elements, and themes, the John Wick films align with the cyberpunk ethos quite nicely.
It didn’t occur to me until experiencing the opening moments of John Wick: Chapter 2 how deeply the films dive into visuals most closely associated with cyberpunk. Chapter 2 begins on a neon-lit street slick with rain within an urban sprawl as a man on a motorcycle skitters out of an alleyway where a silent film is projected onto the side of the building. Pursuing this man in full biker gear is a black-suit-clad killer driving a classic Mustang, weaving through heavy traffic until he heads the biker off, causing him to collide into the car’s passenger door. To top it off, the scene is scored by a thrumming industrial track. While all of these elements by themselves can be found here and there in glitzy crime thrillers, the combination of all these pieces at once feels like something right at home in a B-movie cyberpunk revenge thriller. In particular, the film clip projected onto the side of a building, while dated, feels almost like a callback to Blade Runner’s geisha contraceptive ad.
As it turns out, the first two films are chock full of this sort of hyper-modern imagery. Wick’s rampaging under the pretense of vengeance leads him through urban setpieces commonly played with in near-future cyberpunk–from shipyards and warehouses to massive nightclubs blasting electronic music, Roman ruins converted into a concert venue for an electro-goth band, a hotel that acts as a safe haven for assassins (which was likely the inspirational basis for Hotel Artemis), and my personal favorite, a subway station that looks ripped straight out of the future, in which Wick gets into a very discreet shootout with bodyguard Cassian (played by Common).
All these locations would feel right at home in a modern cyberpunk flick, filled to the brim with a low-life ethic. But it takes more than just slapping neon lights on everything to draw comparisons to the genre. After all, 2011’s Drive has a visual design penchant for comparable visuals but more firmly is cemented in the gritty neo-noir genre. It’s John Wick’s fascination with urban environments, stylized fight sequences in glamorous arenas, and a complex criminal underworld that truly drives the base comparison home. Furthermore, the third film seems to be continuing this trend, including sequences where Wick must fight off a fully-geared black ops team in a lobby lit by green neon, and a chase on a highway with biker ninjas armed with katanas. And to top it all off, there is just something so very, very cyberpunk to me about a surgically-precise hitman in a fine suit. Am I crazy? Am I the only one seeing this?
At first, the world of John Wick’s New York and beyond might seem fairly ordinary, peppered with elements of high-class criminal lifestyle. Admittedly the premise of the first film might seem rather absurd; after ex-one-man-army John Wick loses his wife to a terminal illness, the puppy bequeathed to him upon her death is killed and his car stolen by the son of his former employer, Viggo Tarasov (played by Michael Nyqvist), the leader of New York’s Russian criminal empire. This sets off a catastrophic chain of events as Wick turns over the city to track down and kill Iosef (Alfie Allen). However, it soon becomes clear that Wick has lived a life so saturated with violence that killing has become the only thing he knows, to the point that those who know him by name treat him with a sort of auspicious reverence, referring to him as “Baba Yaga” (the Boogeyman) behind closed doors.
And once you see him fight, it’s clear that Wick has killing down to an exact science. In comparison and contrast to his stunt work in the Matrix films, Reeves’ fighting style as Wick is quick, precise, and merciless, providing little to no flourishes as he wastes legions of armed men. (Side note: Reeves provided most of the stunt work in both released films himself, which is incredibly and undeniably impressive considering he just turned 50 upon the first film’s release. God I love him so much.) However, Wick seems to derive no emotion from his violent actions, suggesting that his nature as a sociopath is as inherent to him as breathing. He dispatches enemies with all the accuracy of a killer android. The only thing that seems to drive Wick is an intense, burning rage, which draws comparisons between him and police brutalizer Judge Dredd, who operates in a similar fashion.
Another significant element in the John Wick films is the presence of the Continental, a luxurious hotel in New York that caters to the every need of the criminals it shelters. Not only does the Continental operate on strict policies that prohibit violence between guests, it also provides services, such as the highest-quality armaments, to their guests. While this may represent the highest level of tech the John Wick universe has to offer (in the second film, Wick purchases a custom-tailored suit lined with Kevlar) the way it’s presented almost bleeds something of a cutting-edge, lowlife-in-high-places appeal. Not quite cyberpunk, but you get the idea. The whole concept of the Continental suggests that there’s a world of high-stakes criminal affairs right under our noses, which has been explored time and time again in the cyberpunk mythos, particularly in the Deus Ex series.
This point is extrapolated upon in Chapter 2 especially, to a near-absurd degree. As the film progresses, Wick is attacked by people on the street looking to collect on the contract that has been placed on his head. While this may seem like a one-off at first, by the end of the film it becomes clear that (OH NO MORE SPOILERS) potentially everyone in New York works as an assassin as a side hustle. This is most clearly demonstrated by a scene in which the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane) sends out a signal that causes everyone in a crowded city street to simultaneously turn their attention to the newly-excommunicated Wick in order to inform him that there are potential threats everywhere. This is followed by a scene in which Wick finds himself running through the city as everyone around him reacts to incoming messages on their mobile devices without knowing who might be reading up on the price that has just been put on his head. This level of paranoia is something Philip K. Dick would have had nightmares over.
Finally, there’s one final element in Chapter 2 to consider: before the film’s final act, Wick finds himself in something of a desperate situation and enlists the help of the Bowery King (played by the incomparable Laurence Fishburne), an ex-bodyguard who, after a life-changing encounter with Wick, set up a network of homeless individuals who act as his eyes and ears, stockpiling weapons in the sewers beneath the city. The Bowery King knows everything that happens through the city via his rudimentary army, and if that doesn’t take the lowlife element in John Wick to the extreme, I don’t know what does.
Triple Feature: Atomic Blonde
If you’ve been following the success of John Wick as closely as I have, you know that David Leitch, uncredited co-director of the first John Wick film, left the franchise to work on his first solo film, 2017’s Atomic Blonde. Leitch’s influence on John Wick has not gone unnoticed; while Chapter 2’s fight sequences were still on par with the first film, there’s a certain element of tight, clean choreography that was transplanted into the late-stage Cold War-era spy thriller. And Atomic Blonde isn’t devoid of cyberpunk influence, either–while its world is built around real-world locations and events, the film strips down the spy thriller to its roots, removing impractical gadgets and over-the-top action and supplementing it with a plot that closely resembles a neo-noir, complete with femme fatales, unpredictable sociopaths, and a Maltese Falcon–esque treasure trove of information that the lowlives of Berlin scramble to get their hands on.
Taking place in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is dispatched to retrieve a list of double agents working on both sides following the murder of a former associate. This list, if fallen into the wrong hands, has the potential to start an all-out nuclear war. Upon arriving in Berlin, Broughton must navigate a decaying city with the help of fellow, untrustworthy spies in the form of David Percival (James McAvoy) and Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
Considering that Atomic Blonde takes place in the real-world dystopia of divided Berlin, sequestered into communist and capitalist sides in a strict juxtaposition that seems more worthy of a science fiction novel than the history books, that alone is enough to draw comparisons to classics like 1984. Additionally, the portrayal of urban decay, the stylized lighting, and a largely electronic soundtrack featuring music from New Order, Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and Nena, really drive home the dystopian elements. Finally, while Atomic Blonde is also devoid of technofetishism, the themes surrounding the madcap race to secure dangerous information, pervasive paranoia, and the desperation of a city tearing itself apart while the dregs of its underbelly reign supreme are enough to make any cyberpunk’s heart go pitter-patter.
If cyberpunk isn’t now, then it will be here soon. The way our media is evolving reflects that. While we haven’t quite reached the point in which transhumanism or hyperrealism are commonplace, John Wick and Atomic Blonde reflect modern anxieties concerning hyperefficient industrial society and the distribution of information. As far as I’m concerned, both films are about one cyborg away from being solid entries into the genre, and when the day comes when one makes an appearance in film and no one bats an eyelash (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an action flick starring Tilly Lockey) we’ll know we’re in the era Gibson, Sterling, and Cadigan promised us. Until then, we swim in the murky waters of a dystopian world transitioning into the future, and the antiheroes we idolize are indicative of that. Be wary of the days to come, my friends.