My qualms began with the poster. The show hadn’t even started.
The film is called John Wick and the tagline is, “Don’t set him off.” The latest Keanu picture sits at the end of a long line of pun-titled actions films, like Max Payne or The Dark Knight. The title brings together the identity of the hero and some central theme of the film. Of course, one doesn’t really “set off” a wick. I’ve never been asked to “set off” a candle or, God forbid, an oil lamp. I am fairly sure you set off a fuse, but light a wick. Maybe the film should have been called John Fuse. Or John Bomb. Or perhaps the tagline should have been, “Don’t make light of him.” So the film was improperly titled. Expectations… recalibrated.
Since Point Break in 1991, Keanu Reeves has seven times played a character named John, which I find a revealing detail about the man’s career. I doubt anyone has ever pondered what was behind a character being named John. John is the name we give to unknown persons. John (Doe) is a placeholder name until the actual name shows up. So, too, Keanu Reeves has a fine screen presence, but virtually no screen personality. He is tall, has high cheek bones and a long face, almost like a figure from an El Greco painting. He is handsome, and most convincing as an actor when portraying someone who is confused or asking for directions. Interviewers tend to not edit out his use of “uh” when quoting him. In a Rolling Stone interview in 2000, when asked why he acted, Reeves “[said nothing] for forty-two seconds… “Uh,” he finally [said], “the words that popped into my head were expression and, uh, it’s fun.”
All this said, it will either seem perfectly baffling or make all the sense in the world that this same John was cast to play Siddhartha in Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.
Similarly, the plot of John Wick has a Zen-like simplicity. With little provocation and no explanation, three Russian mobsters kill a widower’s puppy and steal his car. Little do they know, the widower John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired Russian mob enforcer, and he exacts a brutal, if arbitrary revenge. Often enough, the script seemed to have been written by a committee of sophomore boys attempting to craft the ultimate slumber party movie. Coming out of retirement, Wick takes a sledgehammer to his concrete basement floor, finally unearthing a hope chest full of pistols and gold bullion coins, which he uses to pay for anything he wishes. “He should dress really classy,” one of the boys must have suggested, so Wick wears dark suits.
“He should have, like, this really sweet house.”
“And a sweet car.”
“And when his wife dies, he should go drive the car really fast on an airport tarmac and scream as he does tricks.”
“And there should be this heavy metal soundtrack.”
“And he should have all these rad tattoos.”
“And he should kill, like, a hundred guys before the movie is over.”
“But there should be this hotel where only assassins can spend the night, and, like, it costs a thousand dollars a night. But he doesn’t even care. He just pays in gold coins.”
I might also believe the film was written by Dwight K Schrute.
By the time it wraps up, the audience has born witness to more headshots than the typical modeling agent goes through in a month.
Many action movies rely upon some rather quickly perpetrated crime against the innocent in the first five minutes to justify a lengthy and brutal retribution over the remaining eighty-five minutes. The story rushes through an injustice, but lingers on the subsequent punishment, and the audience is allowed to feel vindicated in cheering on the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of evildoers because a cheap license has been acquired first. Such films wear their black hearts on their sleeves, though. The filmmaker cares not a fig about injustice perpetrated against the innocent (who are nothing more than objects, given that no time is given to establishing personhood), but in gratifying a sincere bloodlust. The pagans of old ostentatiously slaughtered and crucified criminals, after all, and probably slept easy in telling themselves that no good guys were hurt in the coliseum.
I don’t write any of this as a complaint against violent movies per se, though I’ll confess a definite boredom at watching nameless, faceless people get offed for an hour and a half. If ours is a culture which professes genuine intrigue at watching anonymous, de-personalitied bodies get shot in the face, it can only be because we have a strange conception of what a human being is. Similarly, if a certain culture felt genuine sympathy for a headless, plastic mannequin being chopped apart, I would think they had a strange conception of what a mannequin was.
It might be argued that the cartoonish nature of movies like John Wick means they are not to be taken seriously, and thus pose no real threat to the viewer. However, inasmuch as the film is entertaining, it is taken seriously. If the film posed no threat, no one would see it and no one would like it. If it is seen and enjoyed, the audience has surrendered to the logic and poetry of the film to the degree it is enjoyed. The idea that “entertainment” gets a free pass to appeal to our basest instincts because it “does not pretend to be highly intellectual” is quite the coup. Back in the day, nobody mistook Blackface for Richard III, but try to explain that to those who take Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto as harmless fun.