May 2019

Arts & Letters

Killer instincts: The ‘John Wick’ franchise

By Shane Danielsen
Keanu Reeves hones his stardom in the hyperreal violence of an assassin’s tale

Eleven years ago I met a killer. Not a murderer; someone whose profession was killing. Who did it for a living. It was in Seoul, at a services bar in Itaewon, close to the American military base. We were both in love with the same woman, and I went down there one afternoon to sort the matter out.

If a piano had been playing, it would have stopped abruptly when I entered; the only person in the place not in fatigues, I was instantly conspicuous. But the jukebox kept going, blasting “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, so I sat down opposite him and we ordered some food and began to talk. After a few minutes two of his buddies sauntered over. “All good here, bro?” He nodded and they returned to their places at the bar, where they sat smirking at me with a sort of ambient menace.

He spoke softly and held himself very straight and still. His movements were precise, as if he were intent upon eliminating every inessential gesture. Originally a marine, he’d recently been re-assigned to Special Ops, where he conducted what sounded an awful lot like targeted assassinations. Already he had the professional hit man’s distance, the requisite emotional disconnect from his targets. (Did he ever lose any sleep over it? I asked him. He shook his head. “These dudes – they’re not good guys. No one’s going to miss them.”)

Our issue, he explained, was mostly about timing. He’d been dating the woman a year earlier, pretty seriously, but then he’d been moved to active duty. Now he was back – but suddenly I was on the scene? What was that about? I said there was no point in fighting over her, since he’d undoubtedly win any such contest, and he nodded. “I could kill you right now,” he said calmly, “with that ashtray. Or with your glass.” He pointed to it. “I wouldn’t even have to get out of my seat.”

I didn’t doubt it for one second. Real proficiency, when you encounter it, is unmistakable. It never raises its voice, because it doesn’t have to. I explained that she preferred me, and he said he knew – she’d told him the same thing – so he was stepping aside. He just wanted to meet me, he said, wanted to see what I was like.

I think of him sometimes, wondering where in the world he may be and what he might be doing, and never more so than when I watch one of the John Wick movies, my favourite film franchise of the past decade. They’re about a trained killer as well, a ruthless professional who, like my friend from the bar, speaks so mildly one might almost think him benign. Almost.

Like many a film trilogy, John Wick began with a remarkably simple set-up: our hero (Keanu Reeves, in a role that may wind up defining him as much as The Matrix has) is living a quiet life in the suburbs of New Jersey, mourning his recently deceased wife and looking after the puppy she bequeathed him in her final days, when his home is broken into one night by some Russian Thugs™. They want his car, a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 – in fairness, a pretty covetable ride – and when he doesn’t give it to them they cold-cock him, wreck his place, and take it.

They also kill the puppy.

This, as it turns out, is a big mistake.

What follows is a saga of revenge that makes Death Wish look like The Muppet Movie – a trail of murder and carnage that crosses the river into New York, totals said vehicle (as well as numerous others) and ends with 77 people dead. John Wick, we soon discover, is not only a former assassin, but a technician nonpareil – a killer so consummate, he’s feared even among his peers … of whom there turn out to be surprisingly many. The deeper we go into the John Wick Universe the further we recede from our own, until we find ourselves in a kind of parallel world, a realm populated exclusively by highly skilled, nattily dressed executioners.

Released in 2014, that first film was gritty and small-scale, a comparatively low-budget (US$20 million) action flick distinguished from similar Jason Statham and Liam Neeson vehicles by its rigorous, almost monomaniacal purity. It was all about one thing, the avenging of a single slight, and it fulfilled that mission with relentless brio. The sequel, functionally titled John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), was something else again – wilder, grander, more baroque. Now there’s a third instalment, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (in cinemas May 16), bigger again, and the momentum shows no sign of slowing: a TV spin-off is also forthcoming.

So what changed? Only that, somewhere between the first two films, screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski seemed to grasp the untapped potential of their creation. They reset the creative team, hiring a new cinematographer, production designer and editor (Dan Laustsen, Kevin Kavanaugh and Evan Schiff, respectively), and leaned into the series’ mythology. Usually this is a recipe for disaster, but Stahelski and Kolstad understood both their product and their audience. With twice the budget of the original, they upped the kill count (128, this time) and amplified the weirdness, broadening their bench of ancillary grotesques (Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, Jason Mantzoukas’s Tick-Tock Man) and taking us deeper into the workings of the Continental, the luxury hotel that serves as a den for the many wolves of Wick-world.

There’s a giddy, delirious joy to their world-building – in particular, their vision of New York as an assassin’s playground, a rainy, neon-drenched purgatory in which ordinary citizens go about their business either oblivious to or determinedly averting their eyes from the wholesale slaughter taking place around them. (A metaphor for America, I suspect, and the willed blindness of many of its inhabitants to the increasingly extravagant misdeeds of their government.) There are no police anywhere, no hint of any authority whatsoever apart from the High Table, the shadowy, seemingly omnipresent guild of assassins that regulates and notarises the taking of lives. Yet the film convincingly conveys the sense of an entire social order with its own particular codes, rituals and traditions, humming just beneath the noise of everyday reality.

Chapter 2 ended with its hero being declared “excommunicado”, having killed a rival within the agreed-upon safe space of the Continental – a violation of one of the High Table’s cardinal rules. Chapter 3 picks up about 45 minutes later, with a bounty on Wick’s head and his immunity about to be revoked, making him a lucrative target for any fellow assassin with the skill, or the hubris, to take him down. “Parabellum” is drawn from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war), and as that 10-dollar word might imply, this instalment sees the franchise entering its rococo period. The sets are bigger, the fights longer. Everything is faster, harder, more kinetic. And a shade more self-important.

It’s strange to use the word “joyous” about a genre of filmmaking that treats human life so cheaply, but these are in fact surprisingly joyous movies. Despite their violence (which has become steadily more graphic), I often find myself chuckling softly during their set pieces, tickled by their outlandish invention, their masterful staging, their exact and exacting choreography. Stahelski – originally Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix – not only has a strong compositional sense but also understands something clowns such as Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann never will: that fragmenting action into a series of rapid cuts – be it a chase sequence (à la the former) or a dance number (the latter) – can only diminish its effect. The power of a scene is lost when the viewer is struggling to piece together the physical space in which it’s occurring. You forfeit both tension (because you don’t know precisely who is where) and beauty (the calligraphic movement of bodies within a frame).

For this reason, Stahelski is careful to let as much as possible play out in a single, unbroken shot, cutting only when absolutely necessary. And with each successive instalment, he’s set himself greater technical challenges – having fight scenes play out against giant video screens filled with abstract patterns, for example, or among reflective surfaces flooded by random lights. Thus making it nearly impossible to match-cut between different takes.

But this franchise’s greatest asset is its star – and that’s not a word I use lightly. So few actors today are stars in the traditional sense, partly because the industry has changed, but mostly because performance styles are less theatrical; a good actor, these days, is expected to disappear into a role. But there’s nothing remotely naturalistic about Reeves’ acting, just as there wasn’t about Humphrey Bogart’s or Jimmy Stewart’s, and so, like those greats, he’s always playing more or less the same character … which is to say, a variation upon himself.

Now 54, Reeves remains uncannily, almost supernaturally fit. But he also puts in the effort: there are several videos on YouTube of him undertaking weapons training for this role, and they’re fascinating, both for his humility and for the careful attention he pays – he appears genuinely pleased to acquire and perfect a new skill. And all that dedication pays off: when John Wick reloads a semi-automatic, or hurls a knife, the gesture is thrilling in the same way that Baryshnikov dancing was thrilling – as an expression of discipline turned to effortless mastery. Most of all, this mechanical proficiency serves as a necessary counterweight to the cartoonish unreality of the action. Bloodied but unyielding, Wick represents a fixed point of physical integrity – the steadfast axis around which a whole world of mayhem turns.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Cover May 2019

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