Let’s compare two revenge films that, at first perusal, couldn’t be more different.
John Wick‘s title character is a hired killer, the best in the biz: a cool, wealthy, consummate professional. Compare him to Blue Ruin‘s Dwight: hangdog, homeless, and hapless. Both are men of few words, though, and both have a single-minded purpose: vengeance. [Beware spoilers to follow.]
John Wick, as it’s related in the film, is not just the boogeyman, but the man you send to kill the boogeyman. Dwight, in comparison, is an average guy chasing his own terrifying boogeyman, someone who’s just been released from prison after serving a term for the murder of Dwight’s parents. Dwight has been waiting years for revenge – he seems to have given up all other hope and any semblance of engagement in life; sporting a Duck Dynasty beard, he lives in his car and dumpster-dives for food. John Wick, by contrast, retired from an apparently infamous career as a hitman when he met his beloved wife, but now her death from an unnamed illness serves to disconnect him from life, too. Her posthumous gift to him of an adorable beagle puppy named Daisy seems to offer Wick a way back to the moral world.
But we’re watching films about revenge here. The minute Dwight finds out his parents’ murderer has been released, his life gains dark meaning and purpose. And when a cocky Russian mobster’s son and his goons break into Wick’s house, beat him senseless and kill Daisy, John Wick comes out of retirement.
The parallels between these two movies are fascinating. John Wick’s car, a gorgeous gunmetal gray ’69 Mustang, is the impetous for everything awful that happens. Compare it to Dwight’s rusted heap of a Pontiac Bonneville, the faded blue ruin of the title, pocked with bulletholes and just about Dwight’s only ‘valuable’ possession. Both men lose their vehicles along the road to retribution.
Consider how these two gentlemen go about their pursuits. How Dwight has to break into a house to take a shower and shave off his beachbum beard, how he steals a gun only to be unable to bust off its trigger lock, how he slumps in his stolen khakis. John Wick, by contrast, breaks into his own house’s cement floor with a sledgehammer to unbury his cache of guns, grenades and hitman miscellany, then dresses himself to the GQ max in a smokin’ hot black suit and tie. Somewhere in an attic there’s an aging portrait of Keanu Reeves, because he’s looking damn good at 50.
Yet because of Dwight’s incompetence and in spite of Wick’s skills, things go totally sideways for both of them. Dwight does indeed find his target and makes a messy end of him with a fillet knife, but he’s forced to abandon the Pontiac at the bloody crime scene, and then the hunter becomes the hunted. John Wick, on the other hand, is an urban killing machine who ends up needing all his skills to achieve payback. His gunfights – and there are many – are like brutal ballet. It seems that nothing will stop him – not an army of thugs, not a sexy female assassin, not running out of bullets. Good thing Wick has connections: elite membership in a luxurious, gangsters-only hotel, a crew of discreet cleaners to mop up the bodies, a comrade in arms with a sniper rifle, and Ian McShane (enough said). Dwight, by contrast, has a high school buddy with a gun rack and a compound in the woods.
I never thought either of these anti-heroes would survive, and I believe they were both ready to die. You know the old adage: if you seek revenge, dig two graves. Both men are injured badly in the course of events, but of course John has access to a private doctor, no questions asked, and Dwight fails in his attempt to stitch his own wound and ends up fainting in a hospital waiting room. What stays with me – and why I bothered to put all this in writing – is that I can’t decide which movie was more violent, and which movie’s depiction of violence was the more justified. John Wick is hands-down one of the most unflinchingly violent films I’ve ever seen. I lost count of how many bad guys got shot in the head at close range, sometimes several in rapid succession. It’s not the goriest film I’ve seen, though, but maybe that’s more unsettling because the majority of the deaths are so ruthlessly efficient and breathtakingly choreographed.
I asked myself repeatedly why I cared about John Wick’s fate. He’s a merciless killer, but if I’ve got my facts straight he only kills bad guys, he refrains from killing a bad woman, and there are no innocent bystanders killed because of him. Do I sympathize with him because he’s moral? He’s…not. Is it because he’s handsome and stylish? He is. Is it because the bad guys killed his sweet little dog? Maybe yeah.
I asked myself why I cared about Dwight’s fate. He’s tortured, pathetic, and inept, but he’s also sad and lost. He ends up killing the wrong man and endangering his sister’s family. Do I like him? I think it’s more that I pity him. Is he moral? He…is. Do I like him because he looks like he could use a hug? Yeah. Do I empathize with him because the bad guy killed his parents? Not as much as I empathize with John Wick over the death of Daisy. And wow…what does that mean? I know what Daisy means to John, and I had to witness to the death of that innocent dog. I don’t see the death of Dwight’s parents – I only see the sad ruin that remains: Dwight.
What it comes down to for me is that John Wick is entertainment – it’s a sleek thrill ride artfully composed – not surprisingly – by two stuntmen. But Blue Ruin is as close to reality as fiction can get. With its talented cast of unknowns and its Kickstarter budget, Blue Ruin is grim and unflinching and brilliant. Maybe that’s why if I had to rewatch one of these films, I’d choose to watch John Wick again. I don’t have the guts for Blue Ruin twice.
I keep wondering what might have happened if Dwight had simply hired John Wick. But then, Dwight couldn’t afford John Wick.