Below is a list of things that were all purchased for the same price in John Wick or John Wick: Chapter 2:
- Two nights in an assassins-only hotel in New York City
- The cover charge at a speakeasy inside that hotel
- Having an assassin friend watch over another assassin, currently unconscious, who just tried to kill you*
- One night in an assassins-only hotel in Rome
- Two cocktails (plus tip, presumably)
- Removal of one dead body and all evidence thereof**
- A bespoke bulletproof suit
*This was a spur-of-the-moment thing, so we must consider the possibility that such an act does not have a set value.
**This is the per-body rate for 12 dead bodies, so there could have been a bulk discount.
There are lots of questions to ask here—the international underground assassin economy is transparently confounding. All of these things cost one of the gold coins the assassins use as their currency, so what kind of exchange rate are we working with? Is it pinned to the dollar? What impact did the collapse of Bretton Woods have on the price of an assassination? How stable can an economy be when two drinks have the same value as tactical haberdashery? Has Glenn Beck inadvertently caused an inflation crisis for assassins? Do they have any problems with counterfeits, or does the whole made-by-assassins thing take care of that? Do gold coins really make sense when everyone who uses them has to prioritize their pockets for guns and ammo? (Side question: Are cargo shorts more popular with assassins than the general public?) Does having to mint gold coins cause periodic liquidity crises? Do the assassins have thoughts about a cashless economy? Do they also have people that keep saying “blockchain” but clearly don’t know what it means?
I don’t have answers to any of those questions. But while looking for them, I realized something else: John Wick actually contains a sophisticated commentary on the money economy.
Admittedly, looking for a monetary theory in a Keanu Reeves movie might be a category error. We’re all just here to watch Keanu head-shot nameless Eastern Europeans. But John Wick is not really the story of John Wick. Sure, the first movie is his revenge tale against the Russian mob boss’s son who killed the dog that his dead wife sent him from the grave, and the second movie is him trying to survive getting pulled back into the assassin life he left behind to marry his wife. But what makes John Wick so compelling (aside from Keanu Reeves, the Laurence Olivier of this genre) is the world of assassins that provides the setting. That world is a money economy in its purest form, which can’t help but tell us about the essence of our own society. John Wick 2 more or less explicitly tells the audience that too. The climactic fight scene takes place in an art exhibit, and, as the characters enter, a voice-over plays:
“With this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of space and our place within it. We hope in this exhibit we can provide new insights into your understanding of the world, and just possibly lead you to deeper reflection into the nature of self.”
So, what does John Wick show us about ourselves?
First things first: The prices still don’t make sense. But they can be explained (and not with the obvious, boring explanation that directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski weren’t paying attention, which I will simply ignore). Just imagine trying to hire someone who can make a good Negroni, has good customer service skills, and can also keep the secrets of a global network of extraordinarily dangerous murderers; you’d probably have to pay them more than your average mixologist. And who knows, maybe bulletproof clothiers are heavily subsidized. If the NRA is all-powerful in the United States, imagine the sway it has in a society consisting solely of assassins.
In any case, real-world prices are equally irrational. Things can have a price without having a value, to slightly misquote Karl Marx. Nature itself is on the verge of collapsing, but it’s still cheaper for individual consumers to pump fossil fuels than use renewable energy. Our species can survive only if we reproduce, but it costs tens of thousands of dollars to give birth, potentially sending 56,000 families a year into bankruptcy. And after childbirth, you have to pay a fortune for child care: The average monthly cost in my home state of North Carolina is $771. The price of an AR-15 assault rifle? $599.98.
Even with these lingering questions about the currency (a name would be a nice start, guys), Leitch and Stahelski use these gold coins, almost on their own, to build a complete fictional world. That’s because money is the lifeblood of modern societies. It is, to correctly quote Karl Marx this time, “the universal material of contracts.” For two people to exchange little stamped objects and agree on their exact value, there must be an entire system of rules and regulations and agreements, all of which get boiled down into the currency at hand. But there are limits to agreements: Only people with standing in a society can make them. (That’s the One Forgotten Legal Trick That Can Get You Out of All Your Treaties With Native Peoples.) And as the universal material of contracts, money controls that access. Every time John Wick tries to enter part of the underground assassin society—hotels, bars, merchants—he has to pay a coin. As in our ever more privatized world, money is the proof you belong.
That may explain the booming market for information and access. Here, billionaires buy and sell our personal information, which they use to pry open the highest echelons of power. In John Wick, the most expensive thing we see purchased are maps to some ancient catacombs, plus keys to the gates. These maps cost four gold coins—or roughly the cost of a good night on the town.
The other thing contracts, and thus money, require is an enforcement mechanism. We have legal and carceral systems to ensure agreements are honored. John Wick has two governmentlike organizations—the Continental, the hotel chain that also mints currency and distributes assassination contracts, and the High Table, which seems to be some kind of constitutional kleptocracy. They set and enforce a simple code of laws that provides the foundation for their money. There are just two laws, in fact:
- Honor markers. Those are the inescapable blood oaths that assassins use to make important business deals, on pain of death. So, like student loans, but for murder.
- Do not commit violence inside the Continental. It is a very literal safe space, which ensures the possibility of nonviolent negotiation—again on pain of death.
In other words, this whole economy fundamentally rests on two ideals: All debts must be paid, and the ruling bodies, in the last instance, have a monopoly on violence. Once again, that’s a more stripped-down version of how real-world economies work: When societies lose faith that debts will come good or everyday business deals require overt violence, things will get bad, and quick. See: Germany in the 1920s, Mexico in the 2010s, and, like, the rest of human history outside of the rich places.
But if debts and state violence provide stability, they don’t provide peace. The real lesson of the long arc of John Wick is that rich places use pervasive violence to prop up the value of their currencies—whether unnamed gold coins, dollars, or anything else.
At the end of the first movie, after John has killed approximately 8,000 Russians to find himself face to face with Viggo Tarasov, the mob boss whose very dumb son got in over his head, Viggo laments the death toll: “What happened, John? We were professional! Civilized!”
“Do I look civilized to you?” John responds.
On the first watch, it’s the perfect action movie one-liner—good for an ohh and a chuckle while John finishes his revenge mission with characteristic Keanu flourish. But then comes John Wick 2. In the sequel, John finds himself forced to kill approximately 11,000 more people—Italians, this time—not because the rules weren’t working, but because they were. The only way John could leave the assassin society to go live happily ever after with his wife, Helen, was to sign a marker with Camorra boss Santino D’Antonio. And Santino demands repayment of John’s inescapable debt in the form of a hit on his own sister, Gianna. That is the civilized world Viggo was lamenting: one where murder is done with the proper paperwork.
That describes our own world, too, and the films know it. Nothing is a better symbol of the wealthy, civilized world than high art, and art museums have a funny way of showing up as sites of violence in John Wick 2. In addition to the last big fight, a gallery is the setting for the conversation in which Santino demands sororicide of John. Not just any gallery, either, but one with his father’s own collection—which seems to be entirely paintings of battle scenes.
This is what John Wick shows about our civilization: Money is inseparable from violence. Our shiny gold coins have value only because of centuries of ongoing brutality. It’s the IMF and World Bank’s enforcing debt payments on poor nations, Britain’s displaying plundered artifacts in its museums, and the United States’ overthrowing democratically elected leaders. Does John Wick look civilized? As civilized as we’ve ever been, anyway.
“Rules—without them, we live with the animals,” Winston says at one point. The irony is thick. Living with the animals is literally all John wanted; remember, this all started when someone killed his dog. All his money was buried under concrete. But Santino was there, holding a debt, and the contract was clear.
Eventually, John breaks the rules. He kills Santino on Continental grounds and aims his very formidable murder skills at those most detestable bogeymen, the bankers and the financiers and the kingmakers. After all, as Viggo explains in the first movie, John is the one you call when you want the bogeyman dead.
But John Wick’s last lesson is that the bogeyman is a fantasy. For everyone he kills, John just has to kill more. At the end of John Wick 2, he is alone, expelled from the Continental, a stateless person marked for death. To challenge the monopolies of violence and debt at the heart of civilization is to be cast out. There is no bogeyman: There’s just a system, with money at the heart.
“Was Helen worth the price you paid?” Gianna asks before John kills her. But that’s a dumb question: The prices never make sense.
Matt Hartman is a writer and freelance journalist from Durham, North Carolina. His work has previously appeared on The Outline and The Awl.