TL;DR – John Wick is a masterpiece of balancing storytelling and worldbuilding without resorting to multiple exposition dumps or clunky dialogue exchanges.
When you are making or adapting some form of narrative medium, whether it is a book, video game, TV show, online video series, or a movie, two of the most important narrative facets are storytelling and worldbuilding, however, they can often find themselves in conflict with each other. I think we have all played that video game that is crammed full of lore, around every corner is another audio log sitting there for you to digest and thus the story gets lost in at that worldbuilding. Conversely, people fall in love with the worlds you can create, as much as people love Harry Potter, they are also enraptured with the whole Wizarding World, #HufflepuffForLife, so if you focus just on your story and don’t build the world around you, you’re going to have a shallow narrative and a missed opportunity. So how do you rectify this issue, well you could do what Snowpiercer and others have done in the past and gone with an opening newscast, or narration, or like the grandmaster of it all Star Wars, and have it all in your opening crawl. Or you could go with the Game of Thrones route and hide your exposition in sex scenes hoping that nudity will keep people engaged, and indeed you may even coin a phrase with ‘sexposition’ in the process. Or you could follow John Wick’s lead by crafting a strong narrative while also building a fascinating world. Now as we will be dissecting John Wick for this analysis, and since we will be focusing on the story, there is no way we could do that and not have any spoilers, so if you have not seen it yet, firstly go watch John Wick, but also you may not want to proceed any further, or do, I’m not your boss.
Where John Wick separates itself from many films is that on a whole it employs visual storytelling and worldbuilding as the primary form of narrative progression. Now, of course, visual storytelling was not invented by John Wick, indeed there is the old saying ‘show don’t tell’, and there are other films that also employ this technique as well like the fantastic Mad Max Fury Road. However, while ‘show don’t tell’ may go back all the way to Anton Chekhov, very few films these days actively employ it or at least employ it successfully, I’m sorry Warcraft, or more importantly as the fantastic Tony Zhou showed in his Every Frame a Painting video it can be absent from entire genres. Nor am I saying that visual is the only form of storytelling, of course not, the oral narrative is still important, but a visual narrative focus allows you to balance the needs of storytelling and worldbuilding.
So to get us started let’s take John Wick’s opening sequence as a good place to start our analysis. Now as it is said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do make impressions of a movie from its opening that can stick around with them for the entire film. So let’s look at John Wick’s opening, the first thing to note (once we move past the ‘in media res’ which I am personally not a fan of in general) is that there is no dialogue. John wakes up alone in a large bed, drags himself out of bed and walks through an empty house, immediately you have a sense of loss even before the camera focuses on the happy photos of John and his wife Helen. So now you know what the emotion is, loss, and who it is that is left, his wife, now that raises more questions, we know the who and the what and over the next few seconds we learn the why first there is still two coffee mugs by the coffee pot, then there is still her things still in the bathroom, now you hear the sound of a hospital monitor beep in the background as we cut back and forth between the now in the bathroom and the past, the love, sickness and death of Helen. In the space of a minute without a single piece of dialogue being spoken we got the whole story of John and Helen, and much the same as Up it packs a lot of emotional and story into such a small timeframe. Indeed it is not until four minutes into the film that we get our first bit of active dialogue, and by that time we have already gotten to know John and the world around him. All throughout John Wick, we see these subtle, or not so subtle, visual clues being used to define characters and develop the story before they have even spoken a line. A good example of this is when we first meet Yusef Tarasov, now there is a lot we can tell about him as a person even before he starts to talk to John. First, he is someone who possesses power, as his two underlings defer to him and are doing his bidding, also that he is a complete and utter moron because the first thing he does is light a cigarette in a petrol station. So even before he starts talking we know that he is powerful and stupid, and history shows us that this is not a good combination to have. So we know something about his character, thus when he does start talking and shows how arrogant he is, and how quick he is to anger this is adding to the story of his character that John Wick has already started to tell us the story of before a line of dialogue was uttered.
John Wick uses these little visual story cues throughout the film to give the story depth and to provide more emotional impact. For example the use of colour throughout most of the start of the film, everything is blue, overcast, and raining, and even when it is not John is cast as being an island in a sea of people, but once Helen’s last gift arrives, a dog called Daisy, and John gets to take his car out for a spin, suddenly thing start to warm up, the sun comes out. Then Yusef kills Daisy, back to the muted colours, until John decides to go on his trip of revenge, which mostly occurs during the dark of night. Now John Wick is not the first movie to use this, indeed rain at a funeral is one of those old tropes you always see but combined with everything we have talked about it provides a richer visual story. Even in the small moments, like how Daisy crawled over to John to be close to him after being hurt, or how John puts Daisy’s collar next to Helen’s bracelet, showing the level of grief he is going through. Once again all of this is show mostly without dialogue, yet it still tells us about who John is, what motivates him, and it forwards the story along with the simplest set up in movies, John can’t kill cancer, but he can sure as hell can take down the people that killed his dog. All of this means that by the time we get to this piece of dialogue “I heard you struck my son” “Yes Sir I did” “And may I ask why?” “Yeah, well, because he stole John Wick’s car sir, and uh … killed his dog” “oh” even though we don’t yet know how proficient John is at killing people, we are already invested with the character and the world, and we know that the “oh” has weight and power behind it. Indeed, even when John Wick uses subtitles, they are formatted in a way to help forward the story more.
Now one of the things John Wick has become known for is its action scenes, not only for their quality, but in the proficiency of the choreography, and in the filming and editing of the sequences. Now this is all completely true, and we could do another entire break down on the action sequences, which I might actually do now I think about it, sorry back to it, even in these sequences they use the action to help tell a story. Now before the first action sequence, we get John Wick’s one and only exposition dump, where Viggo tells Yusef about John and how he is the ‘Baba Yaga’ so we know John is proficient in violence, but in the action sequences we actually get to see that. First, you have the setup, while John is at home, so he knows the terrain, it is him against twelve other men, who don’t just come at him one at a time. Throughout the sequence it is constantly reinforced that John is not just some badass with a gun, but that he is a methodical professional with a gun, for example when someone goes down he always shoots them in the head to make sure they stay down, and while this is not as some would say sporting, it is a piece of character development shown through action alone. As well as this, he knows when his gun is out of bullets without clicking the gun to find it is empty, or counting the bullets out aloud … Deadpool …, he is always aware of his surroundings, and thus knows when to shot someone even when he is brawling with another enemy at the same time. Through action, they tell a story, and in this case, it is the story of John’s past.
As well as visual storytelling another area where John Wick excels is in visual worldbuilding, which is the more difficult of the two to pull off. Building a world is challenging, explaining your world whilst still engaging the audience is even more of a trial, but to do all of that with very little direct dialogue is a feat unto itself. When people are trying to explain a world quite often they will use a point of view character, or an audience surrogate, someone who is new to the country/job/etc so it makes sense for someone to be constantly explaining how everything works. This is a very successful technique, and one that many great films have used, like Dredd and Inception, however, this is not the direction John Wick takes. Now John Wick starts off with a bonus from the point of view of worldbuilding, as it is mostly set in our current world, so it does not need to explain who the dwarves are, and why it is a bad idea to go into the Mines of Moria. However, even though John Wick is set in our world, it still creates a vibrant and complex world with its own rules, organisations, conduct, and social etiquette that exists, underneath or in parallel to our real world.
Now the first hint we get of this is when Viggo and John are preparing for the first fight, John digs up a case buried in his garage, which on the one hand is full of guns, but also these strange gold coins, and when we jump back to Viggo he is opening his safe and there once again are these strange gold coins. Immediately without saying anything, John Wick has intrigued you with these coins because it links our protagonist and antagonist together. This is the first step in building the world, next after the fight we see John phone someone and make a ‘dinner reservation’ for twelve people, clearly a euphemism for something, at which point he gets out twelve of those gold coins, cleaners arrive and remove the twelve bodies and John pays them the twelve coins. It is such an elegant way of explaining how the world works, there is no clunky line of dialogue that goes ‘remember one coin per person’. This is expanded upon when they get to the Continental where after booking a room for two nights he pays two coins, to get into the secret bar you have to pay a coin. With such a small thing an entire world is born. Indeed, even with the Continental, where we have our only real bit of oral world building and that is that ‘no business is to be conducted on the premises’, it creates a weird world. One where there is a doctor on call 24/7, one where they can just give you a very expensive new car to apologise for a disturbance, and who will permanently remove guests if they break the rules. Through the clever use of ‘show don’t tell’, good use of framing, and consistency with the editing, a whole new world was created, and no exposition dump was needed for the viewer to understand.
Now there is a lot more that we could discuss about John Wick, from the homages to spaghetti westerns, to how it can be seen as a reverse slasher flick, to the notion as one reviewer put it that John Wick was a sequel to a film that we didn’t get to see, or how it was made for only $20 million, like seriously how did they get so much film out of such a small budget, but then we would be here all night. The one thing that is really important is that John Wick is a wonderful film and a case study into how to forward your story, build characters, and create worlds, without getting bogged down with unnecessary dialogue.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Reviews cited in this Analysis
Directed by – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
Written by – Derek Kolstad
Music by – Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Cinematography – Jonathan Sela
Starring – Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Riddick & Willem Dafoe
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Ireland: 16; NZ: R16; UK: 15; USA: R