A good introduction conveys an entire person with only a couple snappy lines. It’s not a matter of condensing pages of info-dumpy prose, but rather knowing how to pick the key traits that will allow the reader to imply the rest of the character. A brilliant introduction, however, is one that gives a perfect picture of the character while also cementing reader empathy.
The writers and directors of John Wick pulled off a brilliant introduction.
Based on John Wick’s synopsis and advertising, the audience comes into the theater expecting an action movie. We know that John Wick is a killer, an antihero. However, the writers did something very clever by choosing to open with scenes of vulnerability. Had the movie started with mayhem, they would have had to rely on empathy by way of extreme competence. By showing us John Wick the grieving widower before we are presented with his deadly skills, they made him human and gave the audience a chance to bond with him. A character who loves, and loses, is very easy to empathize with.
His humanity is expanded upon when he receives his wife’s last gift at minute 6:15. She had arranged to send him a puppy after she died. In the accompanying card, she explains that he needs something to love once she is gone. And no, his car doesn’t count. It’s a perfect beat of humor to cut through the drama. That scene also does a great job establishing John Wick’s motivation for the rest of the movie.
Eight minutes later, a group of men led by the local Mafioso’s son break into John Wick’s house intent on stealing his car. They end up killing the puppy in a moment of petty cruelty. This is the movie’s inciting incident, and though John Wick is the antihero, we the audience are fully in support of some biblical scale vengeance against Iosef Tarasov.
With empathy in the bag, the writers of John Wick turned to establishing his competence as an assassin. After all, all we’ve seen John Wick do is grieve and get his butt kicked. Again, they did something unexpected and very smart. They didn’t show John Wick’s skills, but rather the force of his in-world reputation.
When Iosef takes John Wick’s car to a chop shop to get new VIN numbers and papers, the shop’s owner lays him flat with a single punch. He recognizes John Wick’s car and will have nothing to do with it. He’d rather hit a crime lord’s son than piss off John Wick. Quite a testament.
But the writer’s don’t leave it there. They take it to the next level when Viggo Tarasov calls Aurelio to demand why he hit his son.
Clearly, the crime lord is terrified of John Wick’s wrath. We’re only 20 minutes (13.5%) into the movie, but already we know who John Wick is, who he was, and are fully on board with his vengeance. As I said. Brilliantly done.