No, don’t worry. I am not about to launch a campaign for John Wick 3 to be a Hugo Finalist but watching the third instalment the other day it clearly felt like a genre-fantasy film.
Of course even the first film was, in a broad sense, fantastical. Wick’s absurdly proficient capacity to shoot everybody and his legendary status among nearly everybody can’t be described as realism. However, ostensibly this first film was about a hitman who had tried to quit and ends up going on revenge-fuelled killing spree. The sense that Wick is part of another world in a fantastical sense is limited and really only touched on by the assistance he gets from the Continental Hotel, which we learn is a hotel for elite assassins.
Organisations of assassins aren’t necessarily fantastical, as there are real world examples. The reality of groups like Murder Inc is a long way from the mystique of assassin’s guild in fantasy genres, though. The organisation of assassins in the first John Wick film already feels more akin to the kind criminal guilds that occupy the cities of fantasy novels. However, the fantastical elements are nothing like as overt as in comparable films such as the 2008 movie Wanted with James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.
The second John Wick movie expanded on the setting and introduced a broader world of inter-related criminal families. The sequel embraced the absurdity, physical comedy and Keanu Reeves unalterable dead-pan delivery. It also introduced further fantastical tropes such as Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, who runs a secret network of apparently homeless people akin to the kind of beggar’s guilds that again tend to crop up in fantasy cities.
By the third movie, all of the plot has shifted to this secondary world-within-a-world. Ostensibly New York (plus brief foray to Casablanca and the Sahara) but effectively this is a fantasy city. Nearly everybody and everything is part of this secondary world from a Russian Romani ballet school to a street sushi diner. While the previous films provide backstory explanations of various elements (the High Table, the Bowery King etc) the third film expects the audience to understand that this is just another world with its own factions and motivations and rules.
So urban fantasy then? There are parallels with the kind of ‘masquerade‘ trope of urban fantasy. However, Wick feels less like the kind of protagonist of an urban fantasy and a lot more like Conan the Barbarian. He’s a man with unsophisticated morals and prodigious skill at killing who is drawn into the complex machinations of competing groups. Of course that description also matches non-fantasy characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name or Toshiro Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo.
Fantastical then in the sense of detached from reality and fantastical in the use of various tropes associated with fantasy genres but not fantastical in the use of magic or the supernatural.