Monday, March 30, 2015

The Problem With 'John Wick' - And A Lot of Action Movies

Late Saturday night as I was lying in bed going over my day, I realized that I was missing two hours. Somewhere in between going out to the grocery store and starting my laundry, I'd been doing something, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was. Was I watching Parks and Recreation? No, that was earlier. Under the Skin? No, that was later. What the hell was I doing in the early afternoon?

Eventually, as I was just starting to drift off, the answer came to me. Oh right, I thought, I was watching John Wick. Why didn't I remember that? Why indeed.

Because it's not that John Wick is a bad movie - it's not. Nor is it a particularly good movie, but that's beside the point. It wasn't so ridiculously horrible that I blocked it from my mind, nor was it so amazingly good that I remembered and savored every detail. I remember that it was very well shot and very (as my roommate put it) "directed". The performances were pretty good and the plot...there was a plot, right? The problem is that even eight hours after finishing this film, I could barely remember a single thing about it. Not a dang thing. And that strikes me as kind of a problem.

In case you're about to get mad at me for trying to write an article on a movie I can barely remember, I'll have you know I read the wiki article to prepare.

So the plot of John Wick, which stars Keanu Reeves in his usual role as stone-faced badass, is about as basic as an action movie plot can get. The titular character, John Wick, is a former hit man for the Russian mob. He retired to get married, but the story takes place just after his wife has, after a long battle with cancer, died. He's devastated and at a loss, but he doesn't want to get back into the business. He just wants to figure out how to live again.

And, to his surprise, his dead wife wants to help him with that. She prepared for his loneliness, and one day John wakes up to find a puppy on his doorstep, courtesy of the aforementioned wife. He is gruff with the puppy at first, but within a few scenes they are fast friends.

Then, of course, the plot starts. While getting gas one day, John runs into a young jerkface (Alfie Allen) who really likes his car and tries to buy it off him. John insists it's not for sale, and that should be an end to it. Since this is an action movie, it's clearly not. Instead, John wakes up in the middle of the night to said jerkface and his goons breaking into his house. They beat John, kill his dog, and steal his car.

Obviously he wants revenge.

Only, as it turns out, life is a little more complicated than that. See, the kid who stole his car and killed his dog, Iosef Tarasov, is actually the son of the man John used to work for: Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). Viggo is the head of the Russian mob in this city, whatever it is, and so when John decides to take out his son, he's effectively declaring war on the mob. A hit goes out on John, and the fun begins.

If by fun, of course, you mean about an hour and a half of Keanu Reeves punching everyone ever without smiling and monochromatic cinematography. Because, it seems, this is it. This is the whole movie. It's exactly this basic, and that has its virtues and its problems.

On the plus side, there's something kind of refreshing about an action movie that doesn't make any pretense of having a solid, compelling, emotionally engaging plot. 

Like, seriously, this is a movie about Keanu Reeves murdering everyone because they killed his dog. And while it has been proven that audiences are more emotionally impacted by the death of a dog than the death of a human (true story), it's still a kind of dumb premise. Which is fine! Great, even. This movie understands that we don't need a good reason for John Wick to go on a rampage. We're just here for the carnage.

However. Without a strong emotional through-line in the story, the movie fades into forgetfulness. Yeah, the action scenes are cool, and yes, there are some memorable one-liners and neat set-pieces, but for the most part, it's all the same. John Wick punches someone. John Wick shoots someone. Someone shoots John Wick. Rinse, repeat.

There are no real character arcs in this story, no emotional consequences. While we are told that John is deeply grieved over the loss of this dog - you can tell, because he's shooting everyone - it's honestly hard to tell. And don't get me wrong, I love Keanu Reeves as an actor. But there's just nothing there. This story is paper thin, and while that works all right, it doesn't make it actually good. It doesn't make it anything.

And that is the real problem I have with it. In reducing the action plot to its lowest common denominators, this film has only really succeeding in making something watchable. I don't think I could, in good conscience, call it entertaining. It's just there.

Compare this to another action movie that feels pared down, that doesn't really explain anything about itself, and which is relatively similar in tone and visual style: Shoot 'Em Up. I actually really like this movie, which stars Clive Owen as a hitman who finds a baby and uncovers an illegal human trafficking conspiracy, and then shoots everyone. While holding a baby and eating carrots. It's a silly movie.

It's a silly movie, but it's something. John Wick is so the action protagonist that he feels stripped of all defining features and personality. When his name is first said, it's said as people whisper to each other that Iosef stole John freaking Wick's car. And it's really funny watching everyone poop their pants over this, since all the characters but Iosef know what this means. But that's really all we know about him. That's his whole personality: assassin.

Contrast that with Clive Owen's character, who is a dead-faced contract killer, but one who likes babies and really loves carrots. He's always cracking wise, making Bugs Bunny jokes, and saying the worst thing at the worst moment. He's colorful, and you like him for it. John Wick, on the other hand, is utterly devoid of color. He is the embodiment of grey. Which is probably a much more accurate representation of a hitman, but it doesn't make him fun to watch in a movie.

Right? I mean, I get that contract killers really probably are very average people, because otherwise they would be noticed. But I don't want to see that in a movie. I have The Professional for that. In my silly action movies I want someone larger than life, like Jason Statham in Crank. I want color.

There are other problems with this movie (and other strengths), but this is what stands out to me. Sure, there is a dearth of female characters, and John's wife is fridged before the film even starts, but this only makes it more unremarkable in terms of other action movies. Adrianne Palicki (who I love) is great as a rival assassin named Ms. Perkins, but we don't see nearly enough of her for her verve to spice the movie up. And Alfie Allen is entertaining and all, but he has virtually nothing to work with. Same thing for Willem Defoe. There's just nothing there. No characterization for anyone.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, the real problem with this film is that it tries to be a minimalist interpretation of an action movie, but the issue with action movies has never been that they had too much character development or emotional engagement. 

Frankly, the opposite. So this film has sought to fix the modern action movie by leaning into our tendency for simplified plots and no character arc, and in the process they've made something utterly forgettable. This isn't going to save the action movie. And if more films follow their formula, it just might kill it.

How many action movies like this have come out in the last year alone? John Wick is one thing, but what about The Equalizer? A Walk Among the Tombstones? I know absolutely nothing about those movies, but I don't really want to. As far as I can tell, they are exactly the same. Neutral mask main characters shooting people for some vague "justifiable" reason, and begging us to spend our money to watch them do it.

Well, I'm sorry, but I can't. I want arc, dammit. I want story and characters and emotional consequence. My favorite action films are the ones where I was deeply invested in the life of the characters. Die Hard? It works because John McClane is a person, not just a gun with legs.

So take note, Hollywood. John Wick does not work. Sure, it's fun, but it's completely forgettable, and I know that burns you to the core. If you want to make movies that stick, go back to writing real stories that matter. Until then, stop wasting our time.

grimace grimace scowl