Destroy All Monsters: Is JOHN WICK Neo's Video Game Afterlife?
The Matrix Revolutions isn't a particularly good movie, but it does do a few things that stand it apart from the majority of franchise wannabe-blockbusters. For one thing, the people of colour all survive - and do so by making peace with, rather than completely overwhelming by military force, the machine army.
It's also notable for being one of the few trilogy cappers that kills its lead character.
Neo confronts the machine world in the third act of Revolutions, fights about a bajillion Agent Smiths in a Superman-inspired battle over Matrix City, is absorbed into Smith's hive mind, and then transcends that programming and "dies" - but probably more accurately, becomes the Matrix itself.
(Colour cue: the Matrix, which had been tinted monochrome green throughout the trilogy till now, becomes multi-coloured in Revolutions' final few moments. Looking at an artificial sunrise made of rainbow colours that have not been seen in the Matrix before, the Oracle muses that we might see Neo again.)
I think it's unlikely that we'll be getting Neo, Morpheus and Trinity back together in a fourth Matrix film anytime soon, even given Hollywood's unerring fondness for resurrecting dead franchises regardless of their leads' ages.
That said, this week's John Wick Chapter 2 puts Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) together on screen for the first time since Revolutions - albeit in different roles in a different world, and in (slightly) different character dynamics. (In John Wick 2, Fishbourne is playing the mephistophelian Merovingian more than mentorly Morpheus.)
It's a nice bit of fan-baiting, nothing more, but it does propose a read on the ever-expanding John Wick cosmology: are we witnessing Neo's self-designed, video-game-inspired afterlife?
If Neo is "dead" by way of his consciousness becoming the Matrix itself, John Wick is what that afterlife could look like. If Neo were one of the fans of his own trilogy rather than the lead character, in fact, it's probably exactly what "died and gone to heaven" would resemble.
John Wick certainly feels like a video game. Its "gun-fu" action sequences owe a lot to The Matrix's blend of Hong Kong cinema styles (gangsters in suits with guns + Yuen Wo-Ping wire work = The Matrix), but the sheer breadth and repetitiveness of both films' gun scenes recall video games more than anything else: it's a lot of BANG! BANG! BANGBANGBANGBANG! BANG!, albeit exceptionally well designed as such.
Further: John Wick's fabric body armour suit in Chapter 2 basically makes him unkillable by bullets, just severely woundable. That's a video game conceit - extension of, though not complete escape from, physical endurance. When particularly exhausted in the midst of a foot chase across New York, I half expected Neo to grab a Health power-up before continuing his killing spree. It's part of the fun of the movie, of course; but it also enhances the dreamy, gamelike flavour of the whole experience.
John Wick also features operatic visuals (a bathtub suicide by a key character in Chapter 2, creating a lingering "blood angel" in the water, is the second film's most arresting moment) and a lone, mournful male hero who feels like his basic plot setup is pulled straight out of a game.
Another interesting aspect: the first John Wick was a pretty straightforward revenge pic (although I cannot, off the top of my head, recall so much bloodshed having been motivated previously by the death of a dog). The second film, however, amps up the mytho-religious subtext to a notable degree.
Chapter 2 can be read, from about the beginning of the second act onward, as a journey through hell. Colloquially, both films take place in "the underworld" of criminals and assassins, but Chapter 2 takes John through literal catacombs (after he's "sold his soul" by returning to work as a hitman, against his own moral discipline) before spilling the fight out into a deserted midnight Rome, where he fights Cassian (named for a saint) hand-to-hand before both must temporarily suspend combat in a sanctuary space.
Later, Wick will find a bounty placed on his head that "activates" all of the deep-cover assassins apparently hiding in plain sight in New York City; his journey through subway stations and underground malls is essentially an epic-length retread of Oldboy's corridor sequence, sans hammer.
The final boss battle of John Wick Chapter 2 takes place in a modern art installation made of rotating funhouse mirrors (think Scaramanga's target range from The Man With The Golden Gun - they may have reused some of the sets) while a pleasant female narrator intones homilies about journeying into the soul.
It's all silly, and intentionally so, but I was left with the same overall feeling regardless: John Wick 2 is about a journey through Hades, that ends with Wick shaking hands with (a character who to my mind pretty much always plays) the Devil, before tear-assing out of New York with all the demons of the underworld behind him.
Now back to The Matrix Revolutions. Something that comes up repeatedly is the notion of Neo's karma, and whether he will accept it or push back against it. When he meets Ramachandra in the subway station, they discuss sacrifice and karma; Neo later gets an object lesson in this when Trinity successfully delivers a blinded Neo to the Machine City, at the cost of her own life.
In John Wick, John's wife has died and John is trying to make peace with his violent past as part of a debt owed to her. In John Wick 2, an unavoidable marker of that past life is called back for him, forcing him to break his vow and damn himself all over again. The cost of that damnation: the journey through hell, the excommunication from same, and the pursuit by the demon hordes.
Notably, among the few "demons" not openly pursuing John Wick at the end of Chapter 2 is Fishburne's Bowery King, who speaks of a past encounter with Wick/Neo that left him scarred but ultimately conveyed to him a great debt. (Basically: Wick didn't kill him.)
Surrounded by his own legion of followers who exist outside the strict rule set / matrix that the rest of the underworld plays in (just like Morpheus), the Bowery King gives Wick shelter and assistance when no one else will (just like Morpheus), and looks to be in a position to continue to do so in Chapter 3. It reminded me of the Sideways sequences from the final season of LOST, as departed souls found each other in the afterlife, in configurations that both resembled and departed from the circumstances of their actual lives.
This might continue. It's reasonable to assume that Wick's wife will stay dead (resurrection doesn't seem to be part of this cosmology), but that doesn't mean she can't transubstantiate into Carrie-Anne Moss and turn up in John Wick 3.
John/Neo's karma virtually demands it: aside from all the requisite gun-battling and wearing-of-excellent-suits, the next film in the story requires a reckoning with that original promise to his female partner, and the karmic outcomes of going against it. It would be good storytelling, regardless of the Matrix undertone; but I have to admit, the Matrix reading makes my head spin with the sheer glee of it all.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.