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The Real John Wick: Separating fact from fiction in Hollywood’s violent gangster vengeance blockbuster

By David Amoruso

Is John Wick indestructible? Movie audiences are about to find out in the third installment of the blockbuster movie franchise starring Keanu Reeves as the skilled assassin placed on a universal hit list by the Italian and Russian Mafias, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese Yakuza. But how realistic is this highly coordinated underworld?

The world of John Wick is one dominated by a shadow government consisting of powerful crime syndicates, merciless hitmen, and a gangland economy based on the business of murder, with parties offering safe haven, weaponry, armory, communications and intel, and a financial system that runs on gold coins. It’s clear to the viewer that this is a world steeped in tradition. Its inhabitants follow ancient rules and those who don’t get killed.

The Real World

The real world of organized crime is diverse and ever changing. Each decade new groups and crime bosses rise and fall to disappear forever. Several organizations, however, have managed to survive and hold on to century-old traditions and rituals. These groups can provide us with an answer regarding the realism of John Wick’s underworld.

In the United States, the Italian-American Mafia, known as La Cosa Nostra, is the organization that comes closest to the all-powerful octopus we see in the John Wick franchise. After its members got rich during Prohibition, they were able to infiltrate legitimate businesses and politics at the highest levels.

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They managed to do so while also bringing structure and a strict hierarchy to their criminal organization. In the 1930s, the various crime clans in New York City officially organized themselves into five separate families, each with its own boss, laying the foundation for the decades to come.

The Commission versus the High Table

Making sure all these clans from across the nation would remain safe, the mob formed the Commission, a governing body which settled disputes between various families to ensure no wars would break out between them. As Selwyn Raab wrote in his book Five Families: “The survival of each family and the combined national Mafia overshadowed the needs and safety of the individual Mafioso.”

The Commission in John Wick’s world is known as the High Table, which is comprised of 12 seats, each belonging to a crime clan. Unlike the Commission, the High Table also offers a seat to Mafia syndicates from other countries. This makes it a global powerhouse, whereas the Commission primarily held sway in the United States.

As a governing body, the Commission was used by the Mafia to approve high-level murders and crimes affecting all crime families. Anyone deemed a threat to its safety or sovereignty would meet his or her maker.

Whacking a boss

In the film, John Wick is an outlaw, hunted for breaking the rules set by the High Table. He murdered one of its 12 members and thus must pay with his life. Not to mention that he committed murder at The Continental, which functions as a safe haven for traveling assassins. As we settle into our theater seats to watch John Wick 3, our dog-loving hitman must fight a full army of killers out to murder him.

In reality, however, the murder of a member of the Commission never resulted in such harsh penalties. More frequently, the Commission was used by its members as a tool to acquire more power and influence. It’s how bosses like Albert Anastasia and Joseph Bonanno met their demise. One by cold-blooded murder, the other when an intricate power play blew up in his face and saw him stripped of his influence and position and living in exile in Arizona.

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Also, when families decide to oust their own boss from the inside, the Commission rarely punishes the masterminds. John Gotti orchestrated the execution of Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano and his underboss Tommy Bilotti, but felt secure knowing he had the backing of the Bonanno, Colombo, and Lucchese crime families.

Though he openly broke the founding principles that one was not to murder a boss, the Commission let it slide. Only Genovese crime family boss Vincent Gigante felt Gotti had gone too far and began plotting his murder without he himself seeking the Commission’s approval. All of this illustrates how power and influence outrank rules and codes.

Snitches get stitches or worse

So killing a boss who holds a seat on the Commission is an offence that can be overlooked. No army of mob hitmen will come looking for you. But what about the biggest rule breaker? Which, in the real world of organized crime, is the rule of silence, omerta. It is strictly forbidden to violate this rule. There is to be no snitching. Snitches get stitches. So much so that the rule is universal, from the United States to Sicily and from Europe to Asia.  

In China, the Triads have been around for several centuries. Their code and structure are steeped in tradition. New members take oaths on a variety of topics, several of which relate to the code of silence. “I shall not disclose the secrets of the Hung society to my parents, brother or wife,” one such oath begins. “I shall not disclose the secrets for money. I must never reveal Hung society secrets or signs when speaking to outsiders.”

The penalty for breaking one’s oath is clear: “I will be killed by a myriad of swords if I do so.”

Slit his throat

The Russian Mafia, known as the Vory v zakone, also adhere to a strict code when it comes to cooperating – or even dealing – with authorities. One thief who had sold out his comrades was simply given the choice of “by cutting or by hanging” by senior mobsters inside a Russian prison, author Mark Galeotti wrote in his book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. One of the bosses then slit the informant’s throat and calmly alerted the guards to accept his own fate.

Omerta or burn

The Italian Mafia’s loyalty to omerta, the code of silence, is widely known. It is driven home when youngsters show an eagerness to join that lifestyle and reiterated once they join the organization as a made member. During their induction ceremony they hold a burning card of a saint in their hands and are told to obey all the rules set by the organization and its leaders and that if they disobey or break these rules that their “flesh would burn like this saint”.

Those that do break omerta are sentenced to death and spend their lives looking over their shoulders. In Italy, even women and children were harmed when a father, brother or son had decided to become an informant. Though less common, in the United States there have also been instances where female relatives of a snitch were targeted in order to get him to recant his testimony.

Postcards from the Yakuza

In Japan, the Yakuza also has a way of dealing with those who break the rules of their organization. “Short of death, the heaviest punishment was expulsion” Alex Dubro and David Kaplan wrote in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld. “After banishing the transgressor, the [Yakuza boss] notified other [gangs] that the [person] was no longer welcome in his group. By general agreement, the outcast could not then join a rival [clan].”

To make certain other Yakuza groups don’t let this person into their inner circle, “the gang sends a volley of open-faced postcards via regular mail to the various underworld families. The cards comprise a formal notice of expulsion and ask that the gangs reject any association with the formal member.”

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Such strict adherence to the code combined with the fact it is spread among other clans is eerily similar to the world of John Wick. Though all the rules are in place to paint a very organized and violent picture, the reality is a lot more chaotic.

Killing rats or making them boss

It is undeniable that snitching on organized crime is bad for your health. Especially back in the old days when a hit squad like Murder Inc. roamed the streets and made it its full-time occupation to hunt and kill those who were placed on its list. But for those expecting that the underworld would pull out all the John Wick splendor in its hatred for snitches: You are about to be disappointed.

Willie the Pimp

More often than not, the murder of a snitch happens by a combination of pure luck and stupidity. Take the case of “Willie the Pimp” Bioff, a union racketeer who testified against a long line of powerful Chicago mobsters, including bosses Frank Nitti and Paul Ricca. His words earned them a guilty verdict and several years in prison after they had extorted millions of dollars from Hollywood’s biggest movie studios in the 1930s and 40s.

Despite getting a new identity, Bioff decided not to seek new surroundings. Instead of avoiding areas and regions with a heavy Mafia presence, he settled in Las Vegas. Of all places he decided that Sin City, with its mob casinos and glitter and glamor, was the place to law low and start a new life.

Known as William Nelson he got himself a job at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino run by his friend Gus Greenbaum, managing workers and trying to help keep their salaries down. Greenbaum had taken over operations at the casino after the murder of the Flamingo’s former manager, crime boss Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

How they expected to keep this a secret remains a mystery, but despite the lack of Instagram and Facebook it didn’t take long for people to start recognizing the man who ratted out the Chicago Mafia’s leadership.

On November 4, 1955 “Willie the Pimp” got in his car. When he turned the ignition, a bomb ripped his body apart and blew it all over the driveway of his Phoenix home. Three years later, Greenbaum and his wife were found with their throats slashed, bleeding all over the floor of their Phoenix residence.

It’s what you call a typical John Wick ending to a gangster flick.

Sammy the Bull

Informants don’t always end up as Hollywood as that though. Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano is probably the most famous rat alive. After turning on his boss, Gambino family leader John Gotti, he made all the front pages and primetime news shows. His testimony got him an extremely lenient sentence and a shot at a new life under the name of Jimmy Moran in sunny Arizona with his family.

But what’s a shot at a new life when you can’t flaunt it in people’s face? Hell, what’s the use of your old life if you can’t use it to impress people? So, the former New York Mafia underboss didn’t try to hide who he was and pretty soon was outed by the press.

When word got back to his old stomping grounds, his former associates were incensed. John Gotti had already made it crystal clear how he felt about his former colleague. “That’s a bill that’s gotta be paid some day, just like every other bill, you know what I mean,” he told his brother Peter in a taped conversation in prison.

Peter Gotti knew what his brother meant and remembered those words when the news of Gravano’s life in Arizona surfaced in the media. With the imprisonment of John and recent legal troubles of John Junior, Peter had become head of the crime family. As such he now had the authority to set in motion the murder machine.

In 1999, he ordered Gambino family soldiers Thomas “Huck” Carbonaro and Edward “Cousin Eddie” Garafola to go to Arizona and whack Gravano. He gave them unlimited funds to handle this problem. For over six months, the mobsters surveilled Gravano and scouted for locations to take him out. Carbonaro even began dressing up as an outlaw biker as to not draw attention to himself as a Mafioso, growing a beard and getting tattoos.

All the efforts turned out to be in vain when Gravano was taken down by law enforcement in February of 2000 for his involvement in running a multi-million-dollar ecstasy ring with a local youth gang called The Devil Dogs. He was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison and was recently released.

Shrimp Boy

Still, though the Mafia didn’t get their guy, they spared no expenses and went hunting, right? Just like in John Wick. Though that is technically true, recent events show that things have changed.

Take the case of Raymond Chow. In the 1970s and 1980s he made a big name for himself in the underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Under the wing of Triad boss Peter Chong, he had big plans for creating a nationwide criminal organization that was comprised of all Asian Triad gangs. But when it was time to face the music in the 1990s, Chow opted to testify against his former partner-in-crime instead.

Thanks to his testimony, Chow was released from prison in 2003. He claimed he was a reformed man and turned his focus on helping young kids stay away from gangs and crime. To do so he went back to the same streets in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A pretty ballsy move for someone who had snitched. One would expect him to be welcomed by a volley of bullets.

In a John Wick movie, perhaps. But in reality it was Chow doing the firing. Rather than being shunned, his old gang welcomed him back. Apparently, there is no “stop snitchin’” movement in Chinatown. Using their muscle, he even took back his spot atop of the throne by arranging the murder of his successor.

Once again, it came down to authorities to take the snitch down. In 2016, he was sentenced to two life sentences for various racketeering charges.

My old hometown

Though it totally contradicts the mantra of organized crime – as well as many of the gangster movies made in Hollywood – snitches tend to get away quite often nowadays. In 2017, former Genovese family mobster Anthony Arillotta chose to return to his old stomping grounds in Springfield, Massachusetts. After climbing to the top of the city’s mob crew by arranging the 2003 murder of his predecessor, capo Adolfo Bruno, he left town with his tail between his legs after he became a witness for the government and testified against the Springfield and New York mobsters below and above him. But apparently, that does not mean he needs to keep a low profile or pick a new hometown.

Welcome, Mr. Wick

In the world of John Wick there is a highly structured underworld with connections around the world and all particles moving as one. In the real world things don’t work like that. As the Bioff hit illustrates, despite there being a formidable organization, these groups rely on the right people making the right connections. Someone needs to recognize the snitch and communicate it up the chain. And even then, it remains within that chain.

If a member of the Yakuza is branded as a rat and is blacklisted in Japan, what stops him from setting up shop in the United States? Or other parts of Asia even? There is no global communications hotline that these groups check in on. They rather not communicate about sensitive subjects for fear of authorities listening in.

And if shit does hit the fan, and someone needs to be taken out, most of these groups tend to weigh the pros and cons first. Going hunting or fighting a war costs a lot of money and hinders business. Money is why these groups do what they do. If you make them money, then they tend to overlook stuff like you breaking certain rules. If you cost them money, however, you end up dead quicker than you can ask for the check after a nice dinner.

In the real world of organized crime money comes first. Honor comes second. If honor was placed first, then there is no doubt that a person placed on a hit list would be in a very dire situation and would need all the skills of a John Wick to survive for the end of the film – let alone two sequels.

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