Welcome to Cinemixology, a loosely defined series exploring drinking on film.
*Note: This is meant for those of you who have seen John Wick Chapter 1 as it is chock full of spoilers*
The attention to detail is one of the main reasons neo-noir action film John Wick works as well as it does. Each character is so well thought out, not just by the writer, but by the actors, costume designers, directors, fight choreographers, stylists, etc. that even though the film only teases at backstory and the larger mythological world these characters inhabit, each feels real and lived in. Considering the main character remains largely mysterious and one of the only few specific pieces of John’s past we receive is that he once killed three guys in a bar with a pencil (a fucking pencil), we are able to surmise he is a man of ethics who is as respected and loved as much as he is feared simply through his interactions and choices.
These little details extend to the drinking choices the characters make and I could focus on John’s fondness for Blanton’s Bourbon (simple, yet sophisticated) or the proprietor of The Continental’s classic martini (old school, timeless), or John Leguizamo’s choice of a specific brand of tequila (the director was hoping for free tequila.) But I need to save something for the sequel so instead I’m going to focus on Viggo Tarasov’s, badass Russian “businessman” played by the late Michael Nyqvist, and how his descent into ruin and death can be marked in five distinct stages by what he drank.
Viggo is ostensibly a man of business, a highly questionable business that is probably more mafia goonery than actual business, but a business nonetheless. The film introduces him, however, as a concerned father and that is the role that is his ultimate downfall. His first scene has some very important deal being sealed with overseas clients in the background, yet Viggo’s only response to his second in command congratulating him on the deal is “Where is my son?”. Viggo has just been informed his son has killed an unstoppable killing machine’s adorable puppy and knows, just as well as the audience does, that his son is already as good as dead. This leads to the first scene that Viggo is shown both drinking and interacting with walking corpse/piece-of-shit progeny, Iosef (played by Game of Throne’s Alfie Allen.)
Drink 1: Quintissentially Q Vodka
Viggo greets his son with a glass of Quintessentially Q Vodka. It took me a long time to identify this first bottle that Viggo pours out of and with good reason. It is a high end luxury label made exclusively for the exclusive “luxury lifestyle management” and concierge service Quintessentially. If the use of “exclusive” and “luxury” didn’t tip you off, this shit is expensive and hard to find. This vodka is a symbol of wealth and power, made specifically to be sipped by fancy men and women who have enough money to buy and sell your entire family and want to make sure people know it. Iosef downs it one gulp.
Because Iosef is a garbage person.
Viggo provided Iosef with a life of luxury but failed to instill a sense of appreciation for this lifestyle. Now that his son has fucked up beyond repair, Viggo finally chooses to teach Iosef that beautiful luxury can be stripped away with ugly violence, and proceeds to literally punch that vodka right back out of Iosef.
The message is clear: What is given can be taken away, you. dumb. ass. And that brings us immediately to Viggo’s second drink choice.
Drink 2: Russian Standard
Russian Standard is a luxury vodka brand most popular among Russian expats who are feeling a bit home sick. Viggo pours a large glass of this spirit, takes a long sip before launching into the story of the mythical bloody exploits of John Wick.
Viggo is already beginning to crumble. He longs for comfort and dulled senses, drinking a near tasteless booze that reminds him of home and of how far he’s come and where he can still fall to. His options are already limited to the point of being nonexistent and tells his son as much. “You will do nothing, because you can do nothing. He will come for you.”
This is the first of many times Viggo is presented with a choice: Let John Wick kill his son or watch his entire empire be burned up by John’s fury. Viggo, still sipping his comforting mother country’s vodka, lays down his pride and calls John to plea for Iosef’s life. When John unsurprisingly does not relent, Viggo makes the poor choice to try and save his son’s life by sending a hit squad to John’s house, leading to a long night of nursing his third drink choice.
Drink 3: Glenlivet 18yr Old Scotch
Viggo knows he’s fighting a losing a battle trying to save his son and now that he’s tried to kill John, he’s put himself and his business in the unstoppable hitman’s sights. The failed attempt at John’s life is interspersed with Viggo sitting alone in a chair, spending all night drinking an entire bottle of expensive scotch.
He’s trying to dull his senses and enjoy the luxury of the lifestyle he’s created for himself, for what Viggo grimly realizes is one of the last times. Scotch is stereotypically a refined drink for “gentlemen” and, unlike his son, Viggo knows how to appreciate the finer things in life and that an 18 year old bottle of Scotch is not meant for a cheap drunk. He’s drinking it because he knows his nights of relaxing in his fineries are numbered and there’s no point in saving and savoring anymore.
The next morning, the bottle of scotch is gone as is Viggo the refined business man. He calls upon the underground network of assassins that exists in this world to put a hit out on John, all but ensuring his business will perish along with son. Eventually, after the deaths of many many goons and hitmen, Viggo briefly regains his composure (and sobriety) enough to subdue John and for a moment it looks victory is in Viggo’s grasp.
Unfortunately that fails with the help of John’s guardian assassin Marcus (played by the world’s scariest looking friendly guy, Willem Dafoe) and Viggo finally relents and tells John where to find and kill Iosef. Which leads to Viggo’s next intoxicant.
Drink 4: A Marijuana Cigarette
Alright, I’m fully aware a joint isn’t an alcoholic beverage. But it is the final time Viggo is presented with the choice to let John exact his revenge and allow Viggo to walk away with his business and life in tact or fall into ruin. John continues to offer an out because despite all his rage and fury, he is still a loyal man with a solid code of ethics that realizes Viggo’s actions are of a desperate father just as John’s are of a grief stricken widower.
Compared to the refined drinking choices, a sloppy hand rolled joint is crass, low class, and truly mind dulling. Despite his intoxication throughout the film, Viggo has managed to maintain at least a semblance of being in control and keeping his mind somewhat functional. But that is gone. For each bullet hole in his son’s corpse, two more formed in Viggo’s strong facade.
Viggo gathers up every last bit of resolve he has left and takes his vengeance on poor guardian assassin Marcus. During this brief window of control a trusty bottle of Russian Standard can be seen on a table, symbolizing the comfort and power Viggo has tenuously achieved, but it is power as theater as no one in the scene will survive the night.
Viggo knows at this point he has snuffed out his last chance to walk away. His actions are one last defiant display of machismo, setting Boogeyman Wick’s sights firmly on his back and destroying the option to back away that John has continually offered. Thus, after this scene Viggo finally and fully succumbs to being the drunken grieving father with nothing left, which leaves his last drink choice fairly unsurprising.
Drink 5: Whatever’s Handy
John’s coming for him. Viggo’s business is destroyed, his son is dead, his men either dead or dying, he’s been blacklisted from the underground world that supported his endeavors. He’s technically trying to flee to a helicopter, but he knows there is nowhere for him to run or hide at this point. It’s all for show. He’s giving the bare minimum of pretending he has a chance at a life.
We’ve seen Viggo drink and drink (and smoke), but other than a bleary look in his eye or some poor decision making, he never achieved the level of “white girl wasted”. As he flees in a limo, however, we see a Viggo we’ve never seen before.
Dude is straight up shit-faced.
He slurs his words. He shouts the chant of so many drunks after they’ve been cut off and shoved into a cab: “Where’s my cigarettes? Do you have my cigarettes?”. He’s giggles like a child as his car is rammed and John murders his final few men. Viggo the man is gone and he’s reduced to a petulant teenager not unlike his late son, just sort of chugging whatever booze he can find in his limo. The decanters and bottles he pulls from are indistinguishable, it doesn’t matter.
He’s nothing more than an undiscerning drunk and it’s fitting he dies in the tragic, if stereotypical, pose of many a drunkard: Slumped over on the pavement in a gutter. Alone, rained on, and utterly destroyed.
Dead Reckoning (1947)
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
The Paul Lynde Show (pilot)