Keanu Reeves has become the kind of star who plays action heroes as men of few words. And the characters his female co-stars play have come to mirror that sense of stoicism. Gone is the chatty distress of Sandra Bullock’s Annie Porter in 1994’s Speed. Instead, there’s more of the quiet badassery of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix trilogy or the sweetness of Mika (Ko Shibasaki) in 47 Ronin. In Reeves’ latest action franchise, he employs that same quietness while playing John Wick, a retired assassin forced back into the dark mercenary life to seek revenge. In both the original film and its sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick mourns the loss of his wife and battles against female assassins, all of whom speak very little, if at all. Although these women serve to complement Wick’s own quietness and keep him as the focus, they also play into action films’ tendency to let women be seen and not heard.
The first film surprised everyone with its success. With a budget of $20 million, John Wick opened at No. 2 before earning over $88 million worldwide. With numbers like that, a sequel (and franchise) was inevitable. John Wick: Chapter 2 opened at No. 3, breaking even with the film’s budget in its opening weekend by taking in over $41 million worldwide. The John Wick films have added a much-needed kick to the action genre with their tightly choreographed and compelling gun fu that allows audiences to see the combat clearly (no more shaky-cam blurriness), yet they can’t seem to shake action’s commitment to keeping women on the sidelines. Wick could have been a great opportunity to change that around, especially considering how popular and wide-reaching the movies are.
In the first film, before John’s wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) dies from a sudden, unexplained illness, she makes deathbed arrangements to send him a puppy, Daisy, so he won’t be completely alone as he grieves. Unfortunately, after John turns down an unsolicited offer from a Russian gang member Iosef (Alfie Allen), Iosef and his crew hunt John down, kill Daisy, and steal his car. Characters in the film, audience members, and occasionally critics reduce the motive for John’s vengeance as simply being over the dog, but it’s more than that. Daisy is the last gift from the woman he loved so much that he stopped his lucrative, addictive career of killing for pay.
Helen Wick gets fridged — that is, she’s killed as part of the hero’s motivation for action. John has a video on his phone of the two of them on the beach, which he watches during his lonely moments or when he needs to remind himself why he’s hunting down Russians. In the video, Helen barely speaks. She asks, “What are you doing, John?” when she realizes he’s filming her, and he asks her the same question in response. She replies, “Waiting for you.” When John receives the puppy after Helen’s death, Helen (in voiceover) reads the contents of the accompanying letter, and that’s the last the audience sees or hears from her in the film. Her death, the ultimate silencer, is enough. Even the dog, with her traditionally feminine name, is dead.
As John works out his grief through revenge, leaving a trail of bodies behind him, he encounters Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) at the Continental, the elegant hotel that is hallowed ground for New York’s criminal network. No business (killing) is allowed at the Continental, but once a contract goes live for John, Ms. Perkins breaks that cardinal rule in hopes of earning the $4 million price on his head. She attacks John in his hotel room, but he subdues her and leaves her with Harry (Clarke Peters), whom she later kills to make her escape. Ms. Perkins exchanges witty banter with John as they fight, and when she murders Harry, she delivers a coldhearted one-liner: “Don’t worry. Housekeeping will find you." This seals her fate. Ms. Perkins may be a heartless killer, but she’s also mouthy. It’s telling that when she meets her end, she’s not allowed to talk.
Not only does Ms. Perkins break the rules of the Continental, but she also deviates from the idea that women in action films should be damsels in distress, eye candy, or quiet badasses. Of course she had to die. In franchises like Taken, any supporting female character exists (then is kidnapped or dies) in order to spur the hero into action. Kim (Maggie Grace), the daughter in the Taken films, attempts to break the mold by being quick on her feet and helping her father as he seeks revenge in the second film, but she’s pushed to the side in the third installment because of her pregnancy. James Bond films have a long history of using women as objects who exchange flirty banter with the spy before they are killed or tossed aside for the next “Bond girl.” Even the latest Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who can hold her own in a fight, is reduced to throwing herself at 007. The strangely popular Underworld franchise continues to churn out films that feature Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who says little and wears a skintight catsuit when she kills werewolves and vampires. Even the Bride, Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, remains largely silent throughout both volumes, though her opponents deliver long-winded speeches explaining the motivation behind their attacks. In John Wick, Ms. Perkins may have attracted attention in her all-black assassin’s attire, but she wasn’t in the film to be looked at, not solely. Her appearance in the film gives the audience a chance to see how John Wick handles a female adversary, especially one close to his level of expertise. Too bad her disregard of the Continental's rules wasn’t special enough to save her life.
It would be easy to fold the dead women in with John Wick’s high kill numbers, but as demonstrated with Ms. Perkins and later with two significant female characters, Gianna D’Antonio and Ares, in the sequel, John shows some mercy to the women he encounters. Does he have a gentlemanly code when it comes to killing women? Perhaps. If John Wick can show leniency toward women, however slight, why do the movies insist on keeping their women as quiet as possible?
John Wick’s preference for silent women continues in the sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2. After finally getting his car back, John has an unexpected visitor, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who gave John the means to escape mercenary life. Now he wants John to pay back his debt and murder Santino's sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Santino has a crew of bodyguards, led by the mute Ares (Ruby Rose), who manages to keep a somewhat lustful eye on John throughout the film. It’s not clear if Ares has a hearing impairment, but she speaks through sign language and relies on visual cues for communication.
At one point, Ares frisks John, paying such close attention to his crotch and butt that he sends her an incredulous look, which she answers with a smirk. The two exchange silent communication again, much later, when she checks him out at a bar. She signs that she’ll see him soon, and he responds via sign language as well. When the two meet for their final confrontation, from which John emerges the victor, Ares signs that she’ll be seeing him. John responds “sure,” via both sign and spoken language. Ares’ silent flirtation may have been too much for John, a man still grieving his dead wife.
John is reluctant to accept Santino’s mission to kill Gianna. He no longer wants to be a killer for hire. He only came out of retirement to work through his grief, but he eventually realizes he has to return the favor he owes Santino.
In Chapter 2, most of the women in the film work at branches of the Continental as operators, file clerks, hosts, and performers. Only the file clerks speak to each other, as a part of their duties, which relate to John Wick, so it doesn’t seem as if those exchanges can technically pass the Bechdel test. And these exchanges are muted at best, there to give the audience breathing room after watching multiple shots to people’s heads and to ramp up tension for the next fight sequence. Even when John meets up with Gianna, whom he’s set to kill, she delivers only one soliloquy in the nude before being taken out. It’s as if the filmmakers can only tolerate a woman who talks for longer than a sentence when she’s on display somehow. In the final image of Gianna, her nudity is covered by her own blood trailing around her — a beautiful piece of art, silenced forever.
The John Wick films may not have much use for women, but they rely on Keanu Reeves’ appeal to get women in the seats. John Wick is a great romance hero, and he doesn’t try to fuck his way through his mission like James Bond. Instead, John is the perfect grieving, badass widower who’s not bad on the eyes.
Heading into the final act of the film, John checks his phone, which has been smashed beyond repair. Now he can’t even watch or listen to his late wife to remember why he returned to the life of a hitman. At the end of the first film, John rescues a dog that he keeps nameless in the sequel — however, he refers to the animal as a “good boy,” clearly indicating the dog is male. The nameless, male dog survives the sequel, whereas Daisy barely makes it past the first 30 minutes of the original. In today’s political climate, women refuse to remain quiet, kicking up noise and making their voices heard, so it’s off-putting to see the women in one of the most popular recent action franchises frequently silenced, especially as women audiences flock to see their favorite sad boyfriend. With the incredible popularity of the John Wick franchise, its writers and directors could take a chance and give its women more to do and say.
John Wick may be a refreshing new addition to the action genre, but relying on the trope that the best woman is a dead (quiet) woman makes it like any other action franchise. Having a woman survive a film won’t ruin the appeal of Keanu Reeves’ character. In fact, it may make him more attractive.