The Russians call him “Baba Yaga, meaning “Boogeyman,” an assassin who moves in and out of the shadows, striking with terrible certainty. But that mythical language implies a ghostly immortality that doesn’t quite capture the essence of John Wick. John Wick isn’t a sniper who picks off targets from hundreds of yards away and he isn’t the type to slip into a room and twist a blade without anyone spotting him. His true modus operandi is shooting dozens upon dozens upon dozens of henchman in the head, usually at point blank range. He lives up to his mythical status, but his essence — and the chief appeal of the John Wick movies — lies in the brutality and viscera of up-close-and-personal violence. Guns roar, brains splatter, the crowd goes, “oooooooh.” The Boogeyman is loud.
The true ghostly presence in the middle of these films is Keanu Reeves, who plays Wick as an angel of vengeance that can’t quite shed its wings. In the first John Wick, he had succeeded in leaving the business and finding some measure of peace, though his wife’s recent death had left him in a vulnerable state. If the dipstick son of a Russian mob boss hadn’t decided to steal his Mustang and kill the beagle puppy his wife gifted him before she died, he would have never been roused to return to his old life. The fact that he’s never allowed to grieve, much less come to terms with the sins of his past, gives John Wick a surprising emotional resonance. When he smashes through his basement floor with a sledgehammer, unearthing the cache of weapons and gold coins he’d buried in concrete, he’s like an alcoholic cutting the locks on the liquor cabinet. He’s off the wagon for good.