And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
I have an innate skepticism about vengeance tales. On a gut level, they are some of the easiest stories to tell. They represent the apotheosis of humanity’s yearning for cosmic justice. Someone has wronged you and now you must go on a quest to set the world right. Dozens of great movies , from Dirty Harry to Kill Bill to Oldboy, have been written on this premise. The problem is that spiritually speaking, while this urge for justice is profound and deep, it’s also deeply sinful. As humans, we aren’t the arbiters of justice. When we go out into the world seeking justice for what has been wronged of us, we end up looking more like Charles Bronson in Deathwish. We become dirtied, lesser beings crawling around in the same muck and injustice the world has placed upon us. The Bible says as much.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” Romans 12:19 ESV.
God doesn’t want us to lash out in revenge. On the contrary, he wants us to take the horrors of the world in stride.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Matthew 5:38-39 ESV.
Injustice is part of the human experience. As our experiences often show us, when we attempt to seek out further justice in the world, we end up destroying ourselves in the process. The only way we can escape the cycles of destruction vengeance creates is by breaking the link and turning the other cheek. In doing so, it creates the only path forward that allows you to heal and move on. I’ve considered this idea a lot in conjunction with the now highly popular John Wick movies. The first movie was a minor surprise when it released in October of 2014. It came off almost as a joke premise. Keanu Reeves was playing an ultrapowerful hitman-assassin seeking vengeance for the death of his dog in what seemed like the most ridiculous spinoff of the Taken premise yet seen. It’s the kind of a story Smosh was actively making fun of years before the movie came out.
To the surprise of everyone, the movie ended up being one of the leanest, well-produced action movies of the decade. Being heralded by longtime Hollywood stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the movie was a low budget side project that brought the two men back together from their experience working with Keanu together on The Matrix. With a combination of a solid script and no-nonsense production, the group managed to produce one of the most surprising miracles of recent filmmaking. That first film is unquestionably excellent. Because the filmmaker’s clearly had limited resources, they made the most of every location through great choreography and lighting.
Still, if there is one thing universally agreed upon as a fault, it’s the ending. The final fight doesn’t really work in conjunction with the logic of the rest of the narrative, and mostly just exists to be the final boss fight of a movie that had mostly resolved its story otherwise. Beyond that basic flaw, the movie’s setup and second act are phenomenal. John Wick’s journey is immensely cathartic. He’s a man who undergoes immense pain and trauma who manages to right a wrong through sheer force of will and talent. It proves almost impossible, but by the end of the film, we see him walking home with a limp having resolved his central dilemma. The puppy his wife gave him to help him cope with his loss has been avenged by the death of almost every major member of the Russian mafia who stood in his way. He’s allowed to walk into the sunset with a freshly treated wound and a new puppy.
Given how bare bones this movie is, it really doesn’t leave any room to comment on the actual moral legitimacy of its central character’s actions. We empathize with him because we know he’s been broken by compounding tragedy upon tragedy, but that doesn’t make his actions morally right. He murders 77 people in cold blood over a dog in the first movie alone. It’s a spectacle to watch, but it’s not a moral character journey. That’s why I think it’s brilliant John Wick: Chapter 2 completely uproots the entire moral basis of the first film. I’ve met many people that don’t appreciate the bloat the confusingly convoluted lore the second film brings into the series. Personally, that doesn’t matter to me. The movie is one of the greatest action movie sequels of all time and it’s surprisingly morally introspective in regards to the actions of its lead character.
What sets the sequel aside from the first is the way it treats the events of John Wick as an open wound. John tries to go back to his peaceful life hours after reopening these wounds of his former life, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for that same past to show up at his door with expectations. Enter Santino D’Antonio, an Italian crimelord who helped John Wick escape his life of violence once before. Antonio comes with an old blood debt with the demands it must be fulfilled or John will be killed. After John’s house is destroyed (along with all of the remaining evidence of his wife’s existence), John immediately agrees to fulfill Antonio’s request, but quickly plots to kill Antonio after the debt has been paid in full.
This ends up being the movie’s moral spiral. John Wick becomes trapped in a catch 22 wherein the only way to save himself is to kill more to survive. At the same time, the more he fights and kills, the more his ancient enemies start forming around him seeking further revenge or personal gain. A massive bounty is placed on him and he’s forced to spend much of his time just dodging New York City’s seemingly endless supply of assassins.
As the movie progresses, he makes more compromising decisions that come closer to making him exhausted and getting him killed. This all leads up to the brilliant final confrontation between John and Antonio, wherein he kills him in the lounge of the Continental Hotel, the one place in assassin society that is universally agreed to as a violence-free zone. For this, he loses all of his allies and another enormous bounty is placed on his head. With nothing left, he is forced merely to run and hope none of the assassins in New York City can catch him.
This is a brilliant spiraling exploration of moral and spiritual descent. It’s somewhat tone-deaf given the movie revolves even more around killing for the fun of the audience (ie: Audience’s desire for violence and the story’s moral dilemma are on separate pages), but it’s also a much more interesting and tense dilemma than most action films put into their stories. I’ve seen reviewers go as far as to compare Wick’s dilemma to a Greek Tragedy in terms of how it portrays its character’s descent.
The movie acknowledges John’s journey in the confrontation between John and Gianna D’Antonio, when she directly asks him if he’s afraid of Hell. John is acutely aware of how badly the situation can escalate the more he kills, and Antonio only serves to benefit from his death. It carries the same echos of classic Man and The Devil stories like The Devil and Daniel Webster or Faust. In the end, the devil gets his due and Antonio is functionally John’s Lucifer. Even in death, Antonio leaves John in worse shape than ever before. The tragedy of John Wick comes in that nothing he could’ve done after taking revenge on the Russian Mafia could’ve prevented this decline. He signed his soul away the moment he started taking lives again. This will all likely be addressed with the release of John Wick: Chapter 3.
Going into the movie, the stakes set against John are higher than he’s ever dealt with before. He’s alone in a city of murderers with no home to return to and the only thing he has left to defend is his life and his second dog. His only choices are death or struggle. It’s hard to say for sure how the movie will handle John’s continued spiral into self-destruction, but it’s likely the movie will deliver on some of the best action of its franchise.
This self-awareness sets John Wick: Chapter 2 aside as one of the most spiritually fascinating action movies of the last several years. There are plenty of great movies that examine the cost of vengeance like Blue Ruin or the aforementioned Oldboy, but for the most part, these are low budget arthouse films. Big budget action and grindhouse films like the kind Cannon Films made with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris never evaluated these questions. Dirty Harry doesn’t decide the serial murderers and (other) vigilante cops he kills deserve time in court. He blows them away as the arbiter of justice and suffers little consequence for it. Stories like these tend to come out of immensely stressful times. Dirty Harry was set against the stress of the effects of the counter culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Now John Wick‘s success is set against the turbulence of the past half-decade that’s brought the world to an incredible point of stress. We desire justice in the world, and we grow weary all too frequently when we don’t see it. So we escape into fantasy to enjoy a world where the bad guys are blown away brutally for their crimes. John Wick’s story captures the brilliant tension between humanity’s fallen nature and the cost of mediating cosmic justice on our own terms. As fearful as he seems to be of his own damnation and death, he couldn’t control himself in the face of being broken by the weight of the world’s cruelness and ceased his revenge at what might be the cost of his life. As understandable as this instinct to take revenge is, it’s one that’s well worth exploring and questioning within ourselves. Thankfully John Wick serves as a valuable cautionary tale about the spiritual cost of delving into the muck. We must remind ourselves justice does exist in the world in the long run. John Wick deserved justice, but he’s earned damnation and strife.
“The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.” Psalm 58:10
Vengeance does not belong to us, but to the Lord.