Sing, goddess, of the wrath of John Wick, the widow of Helen and defender of canines. Like the famous first line of Homer’s Iliad, which begins with a request to the muse of epic poetry to tell us of the wrath of Achilles, the four John Wick films begin and end with the ire and vengeance exacted by one man: an assassin-protagonist named John Wick. The body count is high, but Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, has more affability and mild-mannered words than the ancient Greek hero ever mustered. And as in the films prior, familiar tales of Greek and Roman mythology abound in this allegedly final chapter of the cult series. In the newly released film, Wick undertakes an odyssey through museums and monuments from Tokyo to New York to Berlin to Paris. The nearly three-hour film was meant to conclude our own 10-year journey homeward with the sympathetic assassin.
At the start of the first movie in the series, John Wick (2014), the murder of a beagle given to Wick by his now-deceased wife, Helen, launches the proverbial 1,000 ships. This modern-day Trojan War is fought by one man against a worldwide network of assassins in a criminal underworld overseen at its top by a group called The High Table. The eponymous hero, once a famed hitman for hire, comes out of retirement in order to exact revenge for the death of his dog — and reclaim his stolen car. Along the way, viewers meet a number of ancillary and important characters who help Wick in his journey. Friendship and chosen families are ultimately the keys to Wick’s motivation and his quest. Foremost among these characters is hotel manager Winston Scott, played by Ian McShane, who runs the New York Continental Hotel. In reality, this is The Beaver Building in New York City. Each continental hotel in various cities across the globe, from Tokyo to Rome, is run by a manager and a concierge. These hotels are akin to ancient Greek temples or later Christian churches, each of whom extended a concept called ἀσυλία (asylia) — more commonly known as “sanctuary” — to those who needed protection from attacks. As in antiquity, these hotel-refuges provide regulated spaces for both thieves and saints to abandon their weapons and sleep safely on neutral ground.
Across the four films, Winston is assisted by a concierge named Charon, a stalwart guide and protector of the assassin rule book. Charon is played by the recently passed Lance Reddick. It appears Reddick shot scenes for the Wick spin-off Ballerina before his death, leading me to believe that this will not be his last John Wick appearance. As Winston and Charon remind us, this network of outlaws is guided by a strict code. Among these alleged criminals, decorum and hierarchies reign, just as they do in the world outside. And in this underworld, you will need a guide. In Greek myth, Charon is the name of the ferryman of the underworld who navigates the rivers Acheron and Styx. In John Wick: Chapter 4, Charon dies for protecting Winston and Wick.
His unjust murder at the hands of the film’s main villain, the Marquis de Gramont (played by It’s Bill Skarsgård) comes at the beginning of the film as retribution for Winston’s protection of Wick in John Wick: Chapter 3. Following his death, viewers are taken to the designated graveyard for assassins in New York. As a somber Winston speaks to another assassin called the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), viewers catch a glimpse of one of the many large epitaphs. Inscribed in Latin with the words of the stoic philosopher Seneca the Elder, it reads: ‘Vivamus moriendum est’: “Let us live — we must die.” Charon dies so that others may continue to guide Wick through his own underworld. Only later are we told by Winston that Charon’s commissioned epitaph simply read “friend.”
Although the wrath embedded in the story of the Iliad is apparent throughout the films, it is the Odyssey that provides the narrative framework for Wick’s journey. In an interview with Variety, the director of John Wick: Chapter 4, Chad Stahelski, noted that he loved Greek mythology: “I believe in storytelling and leaving it. You know, we’ve always seen John Wick as Odysseus.” First, Wick travels to Morocco to kill a member of The High Table and thus restart old animosities and the bounty on his head from the previous episode. Like Odysseus, Wick’s return home will now require a visit to the underworld as well as reliance on a blind prophet. This modern-day Tiresias is in fact also an assassin, one named Caine (Donnie Yen), who is tasked with killing John Wick as part of a deal with The High Table to protect his daughter.
And yet, in this chapter of the Greek saga, Wick shares the role of Odysseus. A tracker-for-hire played by Shamier Anderson is a bounty hunter who, whenever asked his name, replies “No one,” in a nod to Odysseus’ outwitting of the Cyclops. In a self-serving set of manuevers, Anderson’s character and his German Shepherd repeatedly protect Wick while upping the bounty on his head. We first meet “No one” in the lobby of the Osaka Continental Hotel — which in reality is the National Art Center in Tokyo — where Wick goes to seek refuge. Here Wick seeks out his friend, hotel manager Koji Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), assisted by his concierge and daughter, Akira (Rina Sawayama). Vengeful daughters are all-too-briefly introduced in this film, particularly Akira. Like one of the three goddesses of vengeance called the Furies, the Erinyes who served Hades, her mission is to avenge the death of her father, who is brutally killed while defending his friend.
When the film turns to Berlin, we have finally reached the bowels of the Cyclops’ cave, overseen in the Odyssey by a cyclops and son of Poseidon named Polyphemus. Wick is told that because he had been excommunicated from the assassin syndicate, he must become a part of a crime family in order to reenter the underworld and legitimately fight the Marquis in a final duel at sunrise to get his freedom. In an attempt to re-enter such a family, Wick interrupts a Russian orthodox church service held in actuality within the Roman Catholic church of the Sacred Heart. He then meets with the new head of the Ruska Roma family, named Katia. Another one of our Furies; she too requires vengeance and proof of death before she can allow Wick his request.
With Wick’s entry into the church, we realize that Christianity — with all its aesthetics and symbolism surrounding redemption and resurrection — has entered the chat alongside the classical mythology of antiquity. Wick is sent by Katia to kill a villainous assassin named Killa Harkan whose office appears to be in the middle of a rave in Berlin’s famous Kraftwerk nightclub. Rather than the sheep of Polyphemus, we now have sheeple dancing to electronica and ignoring the intense fighting all around them. As fate and Homeric foreshadowing dictates, Killa is killed and a gold tooth used as proof that Wick is worthy to reenter the Ruska Roma and thus the families that supply the beating heart to this social network of criminals.
The ways in which just vengeance might be turned into liberty is the guiding prospect of John Wick. But the meaning, the methods, the price of this freedom are always what is at stake. In the opera and then in the allegedly civilized space of the museum, we soon visit our villain, the Marquis. The empty halls of the Louvre Museum in Paris serve as our synecdoche for the ills and triumphs of humanity. And lounging on a suede couch within the red walls of the famed Mollien Room, our antagonist stares at Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). The painting commemorates the overthrow of King Charles X during the July Revolution of the same year. The painting focused on a classically-inspired allegory of Liberty leading the people through a barricade with her tricolor flag. Winston Scott, now the former manager of the New York Continental Hotel, arrives to meet with the Marquis and to set out the terms of the duel that could secure John Wick’s freedom from the tyranny of the High Table. It shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that we get a quick glimpse of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819), which uses classical imagery to depict a disastrous French shipwreck on the shores of Mauritania in 1816. Wick’s quest for freedom may end in liberty or it may end in death.
Modern versions of Roman triumphal arches from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe abound in the film’s background, but like a Roman general who is not yet victorious, Wick must stay on their outskirts until victorious. It is only in the final scenes where we get Wick going through the arches, specifically those of the facade of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in Paris. But before he can even reach them and the setting of the final duel, Wick has one last tussle with the assassins trying to keep him from his final fight. In a battle that rages up, down, and then up again along the infamous 222 Stairs of Montmartre, Wick must rely on allies, friends, and a certain German Shepherd. Between the Parisian steps and the shots of the basilica above, I truly thought that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was about to play in the background, but the sound editors were a bit more subtle than the setting.
Our epic Greek story alongside Wick and his many companions ends with an ancient μονομαχία (monomachia) — one-on-one battle — in front of the basilica. And like a true Odysseus, Wick fights with cleverness and power. I will leave the final result a mystery, but in the waning minutes, the showdown with the Marquis commences in a duel that is also dualistic: good facing off against evil, all within the confines of the assassin’s creed. As the sun rises, Wick’s freedom is on the horizon. But will he grasp it? Will he be freed from the underworld and escape the bounty on his head to find redemption? You have to undertake this engrossing, worthwhile, and wrath-induced cinematic odyssey to the underworld yourself in order to find out. A tip from Orpheus? Just don’t look back.