Defining the Box: ‘John Wick,’ ‘Hitman,’ and Systemic Spaces

There’s a shot in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that epitomizes the series’ prime fixation. It’s a tracking shot following Halle Berry’s Sofia during a chaotic gunfight in Casablanca. The camera follows behind her back as she takes shots from behind the cover of a pillar. There’s a horizontal plane on which the action operates; she is on the “bottom,” and the enemy is on the “top.” Most gunfight scenes are content to stick to such a simple axis of engagement, but most gunfight scenes aren’t in movies called John Wick. Without cutting, Sofia moves to another pillar along a completely perpendicular plane, and takes shots from cover there. She does this two or three more times in the shot, reorienting the direction of the action while further settling the geography of the space. It’s a brilliant moment.

The climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors-style art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” A loudspeaker voice describes the work as John enters, and it might as well be describing the whole trilogy: “Within this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of our perception of space, and our place within it.”

The John Wick films have always been concerned with space. It defines their beloved fight scenes as much as it does their narratives. These films always focus on defined spaces, the delineations between them, how the spaces are different, and (in Chapter 3) who gets to draw those lines. It’s one thing to say a fight scene has “clear geography.” Wick has always made that geography mean something. It matters where these fights are taking place.

The first important space we learn about in the series is the Continental Hotel, a New York respite for weary assassins to catch their breath and talk shop. The most important rule is that no “business” (i.e. murder) can be conducted on Continental grounds. The series introduces early on this idea that certain spaces have defined rulesets, and that the consequences for breaking them can be dire. It’s not just that the law exists — the space itself imposes its will on the people inside it.

It reminds me a lot of the recent Hitman games, which are a low-key twin to the Wick films. In these games, you play as the tabula rasa assassin Agent 47, whose ability to disguise himself as just about anyone helps him get close enough to take out his targets, often in elaborately designed accidents. It’s about as far from the directly confrontational action in Wick, but the two share an obsession with demarcated spaces. In Hitman, Agent 47 is prohibited from entering certain areas depending on the disguise he’s wearing. It’s a system the developers call “social stealth.” Certain floors are restricted only to bodyguards, for example. The kitchen is off-limits except to chefs. The laboratory is only for scientists. You get the picture. Each space has a set of rules 47 must appear to obey. Once he manages to construct that appearance, he can pass through unnoticed…provided he doesn’t break any of the other rules. A scientist or chef can’t openly carry a firearm, and being seen doing so in one of those disguises will cause a scene. The game can become something of a logic puzzle, with the player figuring out how to get from point A to point B traversing through various areas with different rulesets.

John Wick has no need for social stealth. He and the rest of the assassins he interacts with barely seem to exist in the real world at all. In one scene of Chapter 3, two young killers are taken out by a more experienced gang in the middle of Grand Central Station. Their throats are slit and they fall to the ground. No one around them seems to notice. A few shots later, the bodies have disappeared. In the most memorable sequence of Chapter 2, Wick trades silenced shots with another gunman in a subway station, the dozens of passersby around them none the wiser. The chaos caused in the first John Wick’s famous club scene is the outlier here. I’m willing to grant director Chad Stahelski that he hadn’t yet conceived of this aspect of the series’ wider world.

Still, Wick does follow the rules of the real world to some extent. In Chapter 3, a confrontation between him and fanboy killer Zero is halted when a line of hand-holding children cut between them. “That’s what makes you special, John Wick,” Zero says. “I wouldn’t have stopped.” Wick finds himself unique among his brethren because, having left the game for a time, he finds himself still tied to a basic social contract. He can’t float like a ghost through these public spaces like the rest of them can. He lives in both worlds at once.

The nature of Hitman’s medium means it must allow the player to decide for themselves whether or not 47 is similarly bound to the basic social laws of a public area. It does, however, penalize you for killing anyone who isn’t explicitly identified as your target. That includes people who are shooting at you, if your mission has gone especially haywire. The penalty affects your score upon completing the mission, which doesn’t really have any impact on gameplay. Once again, it’s up to the player whether or not they care about how many points they get. Hitman does what it can to nudge you in the John Wick direction, though. 47 can take very few bullets before he’s killed, so getting into a gunfight is never advisable anyway. And if nothing else, it’s just more fun to take out your targets without any collateral damage. The game is designed to incentivize obedience to simple human relational law wherever possible. Except where your targets are concerned, of course. Nothing to be done about that. They just gotta die.

Things come to a head in Chapter 3 when a representative of the all-powerful assassin High Table deconsecrates the Continental, meaning that “business” can be conducted on its grounds. The laws that held the area together completely change with a single phone call. Chapter 3 builds on the previous films’ ideas about the rules that govern certain spaces by asking: Who makes those laws, and why do they get to do so? It explores the notion that these laws are not immutable, not born of some inherent human ideal. They were created by individuals who had some incentive to make them that way, perhaps to the detriment of the people below them. And no matter how long these rules have stood, they can be taken away in an instant, because these rules ultimately aren’t for the benefit of the people on whom they are imposed. They’re there to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. These spaces don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a web of intersecting laws and guidelines, all governed by a few specific actors. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Hitman being a video game means that it can’t change the rules of its maps at random as happens in Chapter 3. However, it hits at the same theme in a similar way. Almost every target in the two most recent games are part of the upper-upper-class, the mega-wealthy and uber-powerful. They are capitalist cretins, destroying the lives of people below them for their own enrichment. When 47 enters these maps, he is entering a space dictated by class divides. The Paris map in Hitman: Season One is the most obvious example. 47 must advance up a four-story mansion to reach one of his targets, each floor becoming home to a more and more exclusive club. By the time he reaches the top, he finds himself at an auction where people are purchasing everything from fixed elections to entire islands. In the basement, meanwhile, he comes across a weeping server being consoled by her coworkers. She’s been reduced to tears by the boorish, condescending behavior of the people she’s working for. The basement is her space. It is, in the eyes of the people in charge, where she belongs.

What makes 47 unique is his ability to traverse all of these spaces. He can be a waiter in the basement one moment, and a war economy patron on the top floor another. His baseline anonymity allows him to slip into any space he desires, provided he looks the part. He is the master of these spaces, his very presence denying the power of the people who created them.

John Wick masters spaces, too, albeit through force rather than deceit. His films have him smashing through windows, charging down hallways, racing across bridges, and causing his fair share of property damage. In one especially memorable bit from the hall of mirrors fight in Chapter 2, he susses out an enemy’s position behind one mirror by looking at his reflection from afar. He shoots through the mirror next to him, and hears the thud of the body hitting the ground. Even in a space deliberately designed to bewilder and disorient, Wick is never caught off-guard. He is in full command of his surroundings at all times. He even turns them into improvised weaponry on occasion. In Chapter 3, a brawl in a library is ended when he picks up a heavy book and begins slamming it into his opponent’s head. A little later on, he’s in a stable, and he gives a horse a hearty smack to make it kick his pursuer right in the head. He always knows where he is, and that has a tremendous impact on how he fights.

In 2019, so many action blockbusters don’t seem to care about where their action is set. How many of them end in anonymous rubble-strewn battlefields, or flat open ranges, or airport parking lots? This is a major aspect of what makes the John Wick films so special. It’s not just that Stahelski’s direction makes your mental map of a location crystal-clear. It matters what that map looks like. It has narrative and thematic purpose. John Wick is using these spaces to say something about its world and the people in it, as are the Hitman games. In these works, the worlds around their protagonists aren’t just staging or backdrop to the story. They are the story.

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