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The Utopia Of Rules: 14 Paragraphs About John Wick
Robert Barry , June 15th, 2019 13:09

With the third chapter currently at UK cinemas, tQ attempts to unpick the untimely, negative triumph of the John Wick franchise

The John Wick films have been good largely because of all the things they don’t do. It is a kind of negative success. In failing to err, they set themselves apart.

Take the character of Wick himself. This is not the kind of action hero we are used to seeing on the big screen in recent times. Despite the series’ debts to 70s martial arts film like Enter the Dragon, Wick is not lithe and balletic like Bruce Lee. He lumbers. He is ungainly when he moves, a sort of dad bod Achilles. Yet neither is he a musclebound titan of the Marvel-DC sort. Despite his vaunted backstory, Wick recalls more the ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstance heroes of the 1980s: characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, whose ability to triumph over seemingly more able fighters often comes down to a grim determination and a willingness to improvise, to make use of and weaponise whatever happens to be at hand. Wick lacks the easy charm and roguish wit of Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis’s characters, that post-Bond way with a one-liner that has since degraded into the miserable wisecrackarrhoea of Robert Downey Jr. This, too, is to his credit.

In fact, the lack of dialogue, the sheer terseness of Wick and many of his adversaries, is one of the best things about these films. No-one ever sits down to patiently explain the story to you. It unfolds before your eyes, shows and doesn’t tell. There is no hugging and no learning. It’s here, as much as in the Poundshop-Morricone guitar licks that often steal their way into the films’ finales, that we can most keenly appreciate the influence of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

But the way the Wick series carries its influences also sets it apart from its peers. Since the huge success of Quentin Tarantino in the 90s, it has become common for blockbusters to arrive as a dense skein of reference and homage, ready to be eagerly picked apart by fans on the trivia pages of IMDB. But such films of the Edgar Wright and JJ Abrams sort have largely substituted glib quotation for the capacity to learn. There is a sense that Wick’s writer-directors, on the contrary, have absorbed the history of action cinema – from Hollywood to Hong Kong to Cinecittà to the Newcastle noir of Mike Hodges’ Get Carter – and actually thought about what makes them work, rather than simply cutting and pasting a favourite shot, iconic prop, or nudge-wink visual easter egg.

At a certain point, some time over the last couple of decades, it became the thing to shoot blockbuster cinema almost exclusively in close-ups and wide angles. You can see why: big close-ups give you emotional intensity, while the wides show off the expensive scenery and spectacular set-pieces. But this is a sort of Atkins Diet approach to film-making, lacking in the kind of hearty stodge that holds a meal together. How many times in recent years have I found myself at my local multiplex totally baffled by a film’s action sequences, unable to make out what’s really supposed to be going on? This is because mid-shots are the vehicle of storytelling. They are like recitatives. And you can’t compose an opera that’s all aria. The John Wick films seem to get this. Almost everything is in mid-shot. The camera tends to stay out of the way and let the cast get on with it. There is an admirable confidence in this.

For all their slick choreography, the Wick franchise is generally characterised by the unshowiness of its camerawork. Critics like to talk up the links with Keanu Reeves’ previous big franchise, The Matrix, but that is more an accident of personnel than any matter of style or substance. In The Matrix films – in more or less all the Wachowski’s films – the real star is technique, it is the technical apparatus of the camera itself and the newly available tools of digital editing. Nothing could be further from the truth with regard to the three John Wick films made so far.

There is a general avoidance of technical extremes here. Shot lengths are of neither the frenetic, itchy edit block school of Michael Bay and his ilk, nor are they Scorsese’s bravura long tracks or the seamlessly composited apparently-endless takes of Cuarón or Iñárritu. All three Wick films tend to sit unfussily in-between, without fanfare.

I mean, sure, the music is more-or-less uniformly awful, mostly resembling the demo function on an expensive keyboard circa 2006. But it sort of doesn’t matter, somehow. It’s like the music is just there to create a general sense of noise and busy-ness. You notice it only when it goes away. You could argue that the function of the music in these films is merely to punctuate the silences that tend to come around in the films’ tensest moments.

In what year do the John Wick films take place? The answer seems to be unclear. Google and Wikipedia have been no help to me. A post on the dedicated ‘John Wicki’ asked this very question in August 2017 and remains unanswered. There is something constitutively out of time about the films. We see mobile phones, even what looks like the back of an iMac in the lobby of the Continental, but also rotary telephones, typewriters, computer screens that display text only, green type on black, Amstrad-style. There is this kind of old world glamour to the pictures that comes in luxury hotels with oak panelled walls, marble floors, gilt filigree. As the sequels stack up exotic locales, you could compare them with James Bond. But John Wick and James Bond are like night and day. They move in different worlds. They occupy different temporalities, different modes of untimeliness.

A great deal of the seductiveness of the John Wick films comes down to their successful creation of a world of their own, a demi-monde complete in itself. What fascinates is this glimpse inside a comprehensive criminal bureaucracy. It’s like Brazil with guns and tats. Somehow there is something enormously appealing about the idea that even criminals and mafiosi are mostly working pen-pushing bullshit jobs, doing data entry and mind-numbing admin. Perhaps, all along, what we liked about John Wick was the fantasy of a perfectly ordered world, a kind of utopia of rules and records and accurate book-keeping. The character of Wick himself is able to act out his private rebellion against that utopia without ever fundamentally disturbing its proper functioning.

The career arc of Keanu Reeves can be defined by three film series, each of which seems to perfectly encapsulate a certain moment in a man’s life by grasping its structuring fantasy.

In Bill & Ted, Reeves is the goofy, sex-starved teen who wants to be in a band but remains incapable of – or unwilling to – put in the hours required to move beyond sucking. He dreams up a time machine that transports him immediately to a moment when his music is powerful and popular enough to unite the world without ever having to attend practice.

The Matrix films find the Reeves character in his 20s, post-university, working dull precarious gruntwork at a computer screen, wallowing in recreational drugs and paranoid delusions. He imagines himself the hero of his own solipsistic pocket universe, adored, seduced, and all-powerful, finally in charge of his own destiny. In this sense, A Scanner Darkly, released just a few years later, is the truth of the Matrix films, bearer of a secret far harder for the ego to bear than any red pill bullshit about intelligent machines and the harvesting of bioelectric power.

By the time of the John Wick series, the Reeves figure is something more like a middle-aged guy at the height of his earning potential, comfortable and confident, but craving meaning and real emotional connection. John Wick is basically the wish-fulfilling dream of every 40-something guy who quits his job in the City to become a school teacher or street photographer. It is perhaps this that makes him the perfect antihero for our times.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is at UK cinemas now