The Gunplay Of ‘John Wick’ Is A Bit Too Real For Comfort
10:46 AM EDT on March 29, 2023
In Scream 2, the character Mickey, played by Timothy Olyphant, is revealed as one of two masked serial killers (spoiler alert for 1997’s Scream 2). His motive: give the American public a show-stopping trial, wherein he’ll blame violence in movies as his primary motivation. “Can’t you see it?” he brags to series heroine Sidney Prescott. “The effects of cinema violence on society. I’ll get Dershowitz or Cochran to represent me… hell, the Christian Coalition will pay my legal fees.”
More than a critique of movie tropes, the scene both illustrates and lampoons the discourse around violence and media. Is there a direct correlation between the two? Does cinema inspire people to pick up a weapon? By 1997, these questions were already old. Today, the conversation has barely advanced, even if there is both more ambivalence about the issue of gun violence and, seemingly, more media-reported instances of it: mass shootings, police executions, revenge killings, whatever’s juiciest on cable news. But media influence is hardly a one-way street, or a linear path between depiction and action. More rarely is it discussed how the violence and culture industries operate in a feedback loop, each dependent on the other, in ways both obvious and opaque, for marketing, revenue, and cultural relevance.
The notably static debate around U.S. gun policy was helpfully summarized by Pat Blanchfield, a researcher on gun culture whose book Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence is forthcoming from Verso, writing in The New Republic: “Liberals will often argue that gun ownership was always intended to be tethered to participation in institutions like the early Colonial Army or today’s National Guard. Conservatives tend to retort, in so many words, that ‘the people’ were always meant to have guns as such, since an armed citizenry functions as a putative check on tyrannical government overreach. When polled, a majority of Americans say they believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms, regardless of participation in formal militias…”
The consensus, then—that Americans are guaranteed a right to bear arms, no matter what the Constitution specifically enumerates; that reasonable exceptions to gun control laws ought to be made for people like hunters, who may neither need nor want to carry handguns; but that other people do have a right to handguns, to protect themselves from other people with handguns; that, ultimately, “no one has any right to tell any other person what to do” is what this country stands for, at least for certain particular definitions of “person”—seems to be a very muddled, and slightly cowardly one. People love to argue the minutiae. In the meantime, it’s sort of a drag to talk even more about this stuff.
Which brings me to John Wick. There are certain caveats one must make when criticizing widely beloved franchises. An author must make sure to stress that they enjoy them, just like everyone else, to show that their criticism is coming from a place of good faith, clarifying out front that they know what’s being depicted is neither “real” nor an explicit endorsement of, in this case, tactical firearms training. “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician,” Jeff Cooper, the guy who basically invented holding a pistol with two hands, once said. Someone quoted this to me once, when they pressed me on why I don’t own a gun. That person is now dead, because, I shit you not, they got shot with their own weapon by a relative.
No, my hackles about John Wick weren’t raised until earlier this year, when I heard about a woman named Toni McBride.
McBride works at Taran Tactical Innovations, a prominent Hollywood gun training facility, though training actors is not their only function. They sell guns, offer public classes, and generally promote a Come One, Come All type of gun culture that carefully suggests no partisan bent. Most any celebrity who’s shot a gun on screen in the last 10 years has probably worked with Taran Tactical: Chris Pine, Jon Bernthal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael B. Jordan, Michelle Rodriguez, Halle Berry, Joe Rogan. The owner, Taran Butler, is what they call a character. “Hugh Hefner of guns” might be a tad dramatic, though the immediate visual similarities aren’t off. Butler, who has won the Southwest Pistol League championships over a dozen times, is a brusque, understandably boastful personality, typically surrounded by his seemingly all-female staff of the Central Casting variety, mostly dressed in athleisure and sports bras. “That’s what I’m known for,” Butler said in one Los Angeles Magazine profile. “Beautiful girls who shoot as good as they look.” That Butler is, objectively, a chauvinist gun nut whose ego is, sickeningly but perhaps justifiably, boosted by his in-demand services is one thing, and perhaps an understandable affectation in show business. But his character his more than an act, and his "girls" are more than window dressing.
Toni McBride has likely done more shooting than the average hobbyist. McBride is a police officer at the LAPD, and was, until earlier this year, under scrutiny for shooting and killing a 38-year-old named Daniel Hernandez in 2020. Hernandez (who, according to the coroner's report, had detectable levels of methamphetamine in his system at the time) crashed his truck into other motorists and threatened to kill himself with a box cutter. McBride commanded Hernandez to drop his weapon. When he didn’t, she shot him six times. As of January, McBride, whose father is a powerful police union leader, often prominently featured in Taran Tactical’s promotional videos, has been acquitted, thanks in part to the testimony of William J. Lewinski, a psychologist recently disavowed by many fellow scientists and police organizations for his controversial tendency (in over 200 cases) to side with officers in shootings, no matter the circumstances.
McBride has leveraged both her police career and her employment at TTI to great effect, selling collectible coins (“Officer Toni McBride: Hold the Line”), starring on gun magazine covers, even taking selfies with other acquitted shooters like Kyle Rittenhouse. She’s also appeared in TTI promotional videos alongside the company’s most famous success story: Keanu Reeves. TTI has provided the weapons training for all four John Wick films, plus its upcoming spinoff film Ballerina, starring Ana de Armas. Reeves has been, probably, their greatest online draw.
Their most-viewed YouTube video comes from the production of John Wick 3, with Reeves and Halle Berry training on Sig Sauer MPX submachine guns. These videos are entertaining, as watching anyone perform highly competent, dexterous work usually is. But a bit of context sours the experience. Besides McBride’s checkered past, Butler himself was accused of sexual misconduct in 2020 by former employee Jade Struck. Butler initially apologized on social media, before deleting his apology and accusing Struck of playing the victim.
The first three John Wick films were made before either aforementioned TTI-related incident, though it’s hard to believe each was entirely without precedent. By late 2020, McBride was on trial, Butler had been accused by Struck (though defended by his fellow employees and thousands of online fans), and John Wick 4 was in pre-production. That doesn’t even get us into the realm of a conversation about the actual John Wick films themselves—the slippage between Hollywood exaggeration and reality, and the way the training TTI provides real people is itself based on a paranoid, adversarial, utterly individualistic outlook on the world inspired in no small part by its depiction in movies made by actors trained by TTI. Paper targets and blood squibs on professional stuntmen are harmless abstractions, until they’re not.
I asked Pat Blanchfield, the gun culture researcher, about all of this. He thinks, for the most part, that John Wick is a little silly. “It’s more like a cartoon to me than anything reflective of real life. I mean, it’s fantasy, right? A fantasy of power, a fantasy of frictionless movement and the projection of power through space. It’s a highly aestheticized, slick world. That being said, there is a commercial element that gives me pause. These movies are basically product placement for guns and gun sports. There’s been a move in the last several years by organizations like the National Shooting Sports Foundation to make shooting sports more popular, to brand ARs as ‘modern sporting rifles.’ John Wick literally does a 3-gun run in the catacombs during the second film.
“It’s impossible to point to direct correlations between violence in movies and violence in real life,” Blachfield says. “But the films feel like an artifact not so much of desensitization as of overstimulation and over saturation when it comes to guns.”
One clear thing, even in this muddle, is the degree to which even the most seemingly enlightened public figures, like Reeves—who has long enjoyed a much-memed internet reputation as a kind and gentle person—can compartmentalize their relationship to problematic aspects of their work when guns are involved. Reeves himself doesn’t need to defend the John Wick films from accusations of gun glorification. Critics and fans do it for him with every new installment anyway. Besides, it’s simply a fact to say that part of the appeal of these films is how cool it looks to double-tap someone, quickly reload, then do it all over again. But there comes a point when chin-scratching misgivings about depiction and endorsement and “fun” ought to lead to deeper questions about the relationship between reality and fiction, not just in a “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children” sense but in terms of the various apparatuses, carceral and social, in place to ensure the continued production of entertainments like John Wick and careers like Toni McBride’s.
It’s not sufficient to ask why Reeves and this particular franchise continue to work with TTI. That problem is industry-wide. It’s too pat, and frankly hyperbolic, to say that the John Wick films are causing anything. But to say that they exist in a universe separate from killer cops, mass shooters, and 2A fanatics is disingenuous. It’s hard to shake the conviction that they are, in some way, contributing to this rotten culture when Taran Tactical Innovations is ready to sell you, the viewer, the same guns depicted in the newest John Wick, plastered right there on the company’s homepage.