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‘John Wick’ Body Count: Do Violent Movies Inspire Violence Amongst their Viewers?

Chris Sullivan on the age-old debate about whether fictional displays of violence increase it in reality, now informed by some groundbreaking research.

DJ and writer Chris Sullivan on the age-old debate about whether fictional displays of violence increase it in reality, now informed by some groundbreaking research.

My son Finbar, being a 14-year-old geezer, was gagging to see the latest in the ‘John Wick’ series.

Starring Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who, after seeing his dog killed by his enemies goes on the rampage, some 306 people are bumped off over the course of the three instalments.

306 is a humongous body count by anyone’s measure. In all three ‘Rambo’ films, Sylvester Stallone only managed to rack up 219 dead and the only one to outdo John Wick was ‘Shoot Em Up’ (2007) starring Clive Owen as Mr Smith, a chap who can handle a pistol and kills some 141 people in 86 minutes.

The film is more like some crazy fantasy video game than a Hollywood block-busting movie.

Of course, ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’, directed by Chad Stahelski, is more than a few leagues above the latter.

Slick as a Guido’s hair, it reaches new levels of ingenuity in the battling bods department with pitched combat between Wick and scores of Chinese assailants in the midst of a weapons museum, and another against a gaggle of Japanese ninjas in an arena that resembles a house of mirrors designed by Phillipe Stark.

It’s all-jolly good entertainment with hardly any dialogue and mucho acrobatics, martial artistry and gory skull-shattering vehemence that is absolutely preposterous and totally far-fetched – perfect for a teenager. The film is more like some crazy fantasy video game than a Hollywood block-busting movie.

Of course, not all agree.

On the second instalment in the series, the Guardian led with the headline: ‘John Wick : Chapter 2 is a shameful example of Hollywood Gun Pornography‘. It went on to say: “Just because we can rattle our brains with bone-snapping, aorta-snipping, cranium-splashing violence, does that mean we have to? At what point does this hyperactive, blood-soaked, corpse-strewn video game aesthetic, however laudatory its choreography, cease being harmless entertainment and become psychologically invasive?”


Two days after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and teachers at a high school last year, Florida Republican representative Brian Mast contended that the violence in ‘John Wicks’ movies glorifies guns and anaesthetized viewers to their possible dangers.

After the Columbine massacre, many suggested the Reeve’s other franchise hit, ‘The Matrix’, was responsible.

Mast did not, however, suggest that guns should be more closely controlled. 

Undeniably, his is an argument – mostly proffered by Republicans who oppose all and any restrictions on firearms – that never seems to end.

After the Columbine massacre, many suggested the Reeve’s other franchise hit, ‘The Matrix’, was responsible because the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were partial to the long coats worn by Reeves in the film. Other movies have also been in the firing line (excuse the pun).

Jeff Sessions, a senator from Alabama, protested that the young “are able to rent from the video store – not just go down and see ‘Natural Born Killers’ or ‘The Basketball Diaries’ – but they are able to bring it home and watch it repeatedly… Many have said this murder was very much akin to ‘The Basketball Diaries’, in which a student goes in and shoots others in the classroom. I have seen a video of that, and many others may have.”

Of course, this argument has raged since the first man was killed in an on-screen drama, with psychologists, liberals, the religious, the right-wing, politicians, teachers and parents all sticking their oars in.

But, lest we forget, such violence has been a prominent feature in literature since time immemorial. 


A Short History of Fictional Violence

Even though they did not clock up the Wick body count, Sophocles, Webster, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Robert Louis Stephenson, Wilde and Umberto Eco all wrote about murder, while so-called fairy tales are full of it.

In ‘Hansel and Gretel’ the witch prepares to eat Hansel until Gretel pushes her into the oven and burns her to death.

At the end of ‘Snow White’, when the Evil Queen attends her wedding, Snow White tortures her to death: “They put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed, and she had to put them on and dance in them. Her feet were terribly burned, and she could not stop until she had danced herself to death.”

I’ve never heard of anyone going on a killing spree after a reading a so-called fairy tale. Can you imagine the headline? ‘Spate of Women burned to Death after Hansel and Gretel story published’.

In 1973 Stanley Kubrick withdrew ‘A Clockwork Orange’ from general release because, up and down the country, gangs of youth adopted Droog style – long Johns over cricket boxes, grandpa shirts, bowler hats, steel toecaps, a touch of make up and the obligatory walking stick to bash someone with.

What Kubrick failed to realise was that those who adopted this style were mainly former skinheads who had, for a few years, gone around attacking the innocent. So all they did was change their outfit.


Some Research Findings

A recent study strongly underlines this most salient point: that X-rated films and video games might only influence those who have a violent disposition to begin with.

54 men were split into two groups. The first group contained those who had a history of physical assault, with the other comprising those of a calmer nature.

A recent study strongly underlines this most salient point: that X-rated films and video games might only influence those who have a violent disposition to begin with.

On the first day, the two groups watched a succession of shootings and street fights while their brains were scanned. On day two, they watched emotional but non-aggressive scenes of folk interacting during a natural disaster. They watched nothing on day three.

While viewing the violence, the rather bellicose group had less bustle in the orbito-frontal cortex, which controls emotion-related decision-making and self-control. Their blood pressure went down progressively, while the tranquil groups’ rose. Subsequently, when questioned, all the antagonistic participants said they felt more inspired and resolute and were far less distressed than their non-aggressive counterparts when watching violent scenes.

A Clockwork Orange – Wikimedia Commons

When no films were shown, the violent participants had unusually high brain activity in a network of regions known to be active when not doing anything in particular. The researchers concluded that they have a different brain function map than their placid peers.

“Our aim was to investigate what is going on in the brains of people when they watch violent movies,” explained Dr Alia-Klein. “We hypothesized if people have aggressive traits to begin with they will process violent media in a very different way as compared to non-aggressive people – a theory supported by these findings.”

The findings, published in the Science Journal Plos One could reduce aggressive behaviour starting in childhood.

In the study, scans gauged the subjects’ brain metabolic activity – an indication of brain function. Participants had their blood pressure taken every five minutes and were asked how they were feeling at 15 minute intervals.

“Hopefully these results will give educators an opportunity to identify children with aggressive traits and teach them to be more aware of how aggressive material activates them specifically,” continued Dr Alia-Klein.

“Aggression is a trait that develops together with the nervous system over time starting from childhood. Patterns of behaviour become solidified and the nervous system prepares to continue the behaviour patterns into adulthood when they become increasingly coached in personality. This could be at the root of the differences in people who are aggressive and non-aggressive – and how media motivates them to do certain things.”

I asked my son if ‘John Wick’ might cause youth to kill people. “No,” he replied. “Because it’s not real, it’s a made up movie and, unless you’re really crazy, people can see that it’s not real.”

I guess it’s quite simple really.

If you have a kid who delights in torturing small animals and bullying his classmates, then don’t take him to see ‘John Wick’.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ is in cinemas now.

Come meet Chris at the Byline Festival this summer


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