The Spectacle in Storytelling
Harry Houdini waits, patient as a prophet in expectation of a fulfilled premonition, as the men prepare to attempt his murder. They double and triple check the packing crate, rapping on the solid wood and hammering flat hands against the corners to examine – to demonstrate – the stability of the box. They do this ostensibly for themselves, but it is really for the expectant eyes fixed on the show performed here on this tugboat.
There would have been a larger audience had the stunt been performed as planned on the pier. But when Houdini arrived, they were met by policemen who announced that no one is permitted to commit suicide there. Houdini and his shackles were forced to commandeer a boat and head out onto the water. One reporter was so determined to be a witness that he dove from the pier and swam after the boat, pulled on board and allowed to stay.
Now, Houdini stares ahead at nothing, his enigmatic mystic act perfected after countless such performances. He smiles a little, a slight upturn at the corner of his mouth, just enough. Leave them wanting more. The illusionist then allows the handcuffs to lock around his wrists and the shackles to bind his legs. He steps into the crate, the lid goes on, it is nailed shut. 200 pounds of lead are strapped to the box with heavy chains. This potential coffin is slid into the water, where it sinks.
Fifty-seven seconds. From plummet into peril to surfacing safely, Houdini needs only fifty-seven seconds. He splashes into the air, free of the crate, which is hauled in and inspected. The lid is still in place, everything intact – the shackles and handcuffs are there in the bottom of the box. Houdini has done it again.
The salient question every reasonable person asks – themselves and anyone else witnessing this minor miracle – is How did he do it? I won’t reveal the answer (hint: I have no idea) or quell the desire to ask How? But this is not the only interrogative adverb worth raising. We might also ask Why? The feat is clearly that Houdini slipped the seemingly unslippable handcuffs and shackles, and he emerged from a box that was still sealed shut. That really ought to be enough. So why lead weights and the act of submerging Houdini in a crate in the sea? After all, the fact that he might drown does not make the physical act of escaping the constraints any more difficult; he performed the exact same trick he might have performed on land, in the same quick time, minus the risk to his life.
For that matter, take any modern magician performing the apparently impossible, producing objects from nothing and performing informal surgery to separate the legs from the torsos of beautiful assistants. Why not walk on stage, snap fingers to manifest a rabbit ex nihilo, snap fingers again to vanish a volunteer, and be done with it? Isn’t the magic of the impossible act enough? Why the elaborate costumes and dramatic music, the flashy lighting and witty patter? The answer is as simple as it is ineradicably necessary: Spectacle. It’s all about the spectacle.
AS SPECTACULAR AS IT IS SILLY
The John Wick franchise is a trilogy of ridiculous movies. They are so unrealistic, so delightfully and delightedly excessive, and so absurd that Keanu Reeves’ monotone impression of a carboard cut-out is a feature, not a bug. We are not here for an Oscar-worthy depiction of a man who “receives some semblance of hope, an opportunity to grieve unalone” (sic) following the tragic death of his wife, only to have it snatched unjustly away – forget that, give us Keanu using a pencil to kill three men, fighting with katanas on motorbikes and handguns on horseback, and performing almost all of his own jaw-dropping stunts. John Wick is a cinematic spectacle.
It would not be fair, however and to quickly pivot away from an obvious criticism, to describe these movies as all style and no substance. The substance they have is not in thematic exploration or the narrative driving Wick’s cross-continental vengeance. What substance these movies have is in the style itself. It is in the craft that went into creating such visually striking and viscerally impressive action scenes. Yes, these are action movies, but they are action movies that do it well.
Whatever there is to enjoy about these movies, it is in the spectacle. I cannot forget the excruciating tension during a five-minute montage of three sequential scenes intercut to show Wick fighting for his life against four different foes. A contract against his life has been announced to the world of assassins and now Wick must fight his way across New York, seemingly the entire city against one man. The intensity and size of that threat alone would have achieved the effect of wide-eyed, rapt attention fixed on What will happen next? and How will he escape this danger? but in tandem with the tightly choreographed fighting and expertly controlled tension, the movie reached dizzying levels of adrenal-squeezing excitement.
It was a silly giddiness, a pitch that adults don’t often reach. Children know what it is to react whole-heartedly with no thought for how they appear to others as they giggle and shriek in happy disbelief. I wonder if grown-ups were more susceptible to such amazement when cinema itself was in its infancy. Perhaps the pure magic of moving images had been enough to re-illusion disillusioned adults. Given our tired familiarity with the medium now, cinema must find new ways to impress us with spectacle. The John Wick series frequently succeeds at this.
THE IMMANENCE OF IMAGINATION
The first magic ingredient in the strange elixir that is the John Wick series is the leading man, Keanu Reeves. His vague gaze as if he is perpetually on the cusp of remembering that he is supposed to be acting and his line delivery that goes in the opposite direction, always unsubtle like he is really acting and he means what he is saying so much – these are never going to be positive things, but in these movies his “dramatic” acting stays out of the way of what matters. And what matters here are the tense fight sequences choreographed like dance numbers and executed with the precision and care of an actor who is intensely committed to the role.
This is a man who, in videos you can watch on YouTube, demonstrates a hard-won proficiency with a variety of guns that reveal he is barely pretending when he plays John Wick – you believe he could take out a room of armed assassins without breaking a sweat. This is a man in his fifties who, with trademarked humility, softly confessed when questioned that he does “probably eighty-five, ninety per cent of the action”. The same sort of praise is given to Tom Cruise every time another Mission Impossible movie hits theatres. Clearly, we are thrilled at this dedication to craft that calls on a broad set of skills and perhaps defines a particular type of “movie star”, for whom the movie is more than merely their role in it. These movie stars care about cinema and see their part as in service to making a great film.
The second ingredient is the high quality of filmmaking around the action scenes, from the choreography to the stunt work to the direction. The director, Chad Stahelski, had been Keanu’s stunt double for all three Matrix movies, a skill set and history that informed the way he shot the Wick films, and plays no small contribution towards Keanu’s aforementioned performance. Stahelski has described his expectations of the actor as “psychotic”, insisting to the star, “I know you have more. Don’t lie to me. Get up.”
Stahelski had two main directing principals for shooting his action sequences: First, that John Wick only do things Keanu Reeves could (at least potentially) do, and second, that the audience be able to see the fighting. This is achieved primarily through close-ups on action and long, steady shots that hold on the fighting and follow John Wick’s movement. This is not the norm anymore and hasn’t been for a while, with The Bourne Identity famously editing its action into tattered fragments, the camera drunkenly wobbling around with excessive use of shaky-cam.
Stahelski’s ultra-clear visual style was partly stylistic choice and partly born of necessity. Having only one camera and no budget for much editing, long shots were a requirement of circumstance. This led to other re-innovations (clever workarounds first utilised in cinema almost as far back as the invention of movies) such as actor repetition: “The first guy who dies [in a fight scene] is also the last guy”, meaning the actor takes a bullet, drops out of shot, runs around to his new mark where he enters view of the camera and is taken out by Keanu again.
What editing there is in these movies is of a strange sort that results in long sequences that look like movie trailers. Hard cuts and heavy use of parallel editing – switching between scenes unfolding at the same time in different locations – with an ominous voice-over from one character telling others about how bad-ass John Wick is make these movies seem like 120-minute trailers. While this editing style leaves much to be desired artistically and can become repetitious, it keeps the pace well up and doesn’t allow the tension and adrenaline to lower much between action scenes. For movies concerned more with wowing the audience than convincing them of the interiority of the characters, this is a smart move.
The colour in these movies is increasingly magnificent with each instalment. There are single shots and extended sequences that are sugar-coated candy for the eyes. Take the mirrored-room sequence from John Wick 2, in which Wick ducks and weaves through a carnival-esque hallway of moving mirrors. He and his opponents dance through the space in flurries of fists and kicks, with the camera invisible even as we see reflections of John into infinity. This is not the only moment while watching these movies that I am made to think that, somehow, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
I am reminded, as I reconsider this scene to write about it here, of watching my father detach and re-attach his thumb as countless parents have done for mystified children, of learning about Houdini’s remarkable escape from the underwater crate, and of first witnessing a Tyrannosaurus Rex chase a jeep full of screaming people in Jurassic Park – all experiences that I understood were tricks and yet caused me, momentarily and wonderfully, to lose reality and inhabit a realm of the infinitely possible, the immanence of imagination.
AN ARGUMENT WITH MYSELF
Something of the old contrarian is nagging at me now, a back-of-the-mind itch like a half-remembered thing I was supposed to do; having given my full attention to this cognitive notification, I discover that I am writing here against an essay I wrote last year on cheap consumer culture. In that essay, I wrote:
Quickly a formula emerges for improving the chance of success based on past successes. X worked for the last six blockbusters/bestsellers, let’s do X again. What changes X is only diminishing returns, which are caused by audience fatigue. This is why we are so excited at the slightest innovation in a well-worn formula, and end up praising Thor: Ragnarok or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are not terrible but nor are they profound; they ride a comfortable line, a product that entertains enough to keep people watching while appearing original or thoughtful enough to congratulate them on their taste and intelligence.
This essay, called “Selling Us Short”, laments the lowering of standards such that bland, unimaginative, artless movies and books are now praised for the slightest innovation. So, I ask myself as I type these words and consider those that I wrote above, how are the John Wick movies not precisely an instance of this problem? Why am I praising these ridiculous action movies while standing by my critique of Jurassic World as a film that is ugly in both intentions and execution? How can I enjoy John Wick while holding my conviction that Hobbes & Shaw might as well be titled Eat Your Popcorn, You Morons for its cynical lack of effort to do anything above passably adequate?
The Fallacy of the Beard (less poetically known as the Continuum Fallacy) is expressed in an aphorism apocryphally credited to Samuel Johnson: “The existence of twilight does not mean we cannot distinguish day from night.” A spectrum does not mean we can’t discern one thing from another. The spread of a spectrum between two sides is sometimes thin, sometimes incredibly wide and indicative of the great divide between the poles, and sometimes difficult to parse out. But parsing out the details is where much of the enjoyment of critically appraising a work lies, and in the act of sifting through the grains of a well blocked shot or a syntactically jarring sentence, we can find hidden gems.
Good and Bad are often reductive categorisations that impoverish our experience. What’s more, they lie about our experiences watching certain movies, reading certain books, listening to certain songs; we frequently find that it is the rare movie, book, or song that has zero redeeming qualities or not a single flaw. The spectrum between Good and Bad, however, can allow us to find more from those artworks that we cannot justify putting squarely at either end.
For my vote, the John Wick films sit at neither end of the Good/Bad spectrum, and I have had a hell of a lot of fun working out where their arrhythmia-inducing action and disinterest in thematic exploration place them within that spectrum. Much of that fun comes from and is augmented by the passionate discussions I have had with others involved in the same project. I don’t consider that as being worth nothing.
WHAT IS JOHN WICK WORTH?
The failures of others to talk across divides, which inevitably descend into moral posturing and tantrums, have convinced me that we are all served well by seeking a fair understanding of what others are aiming for and where they are coming from. I strive to attribute the best motives to others and interpret their words and actions in the best light where possible. This doesn’t require us to “play nice” and ignore flaws; if anything, we are better positioned to notice those faults that matter most and communicate them constructively if we have put in the work to appreciate what works in the thing we are about to criticise.
The time honoured tradition of taking sides in a battle between condescending “elitists” and apathetic consumers of “disposable culture” might be tempered by exploring the no-man’s land between the two armies. There is a vast wealth of movies, music, and books that are extremely well-made entertainment; staying with cinema, think of Hot Fuzz, Into the Spider-Verse, and half of the Mission Impossible franchise, which don’t sacrifice craft in the pursuit of fun. The route forwards could well be an increasing interest in thematic and existential questions within movies that know how to show us a good time. The brain and the adrenal glands could both be activated.
We have a problem in contemporary culture with trivialising that which matters, reducing questions of meaning and value to the margins of mainstream conversation, and of lionising and deifying the trivial. It would be an even greater thing than the John Wick movies we do have to have action films of a similar standard that raise big questions and challenge the intellect. Even a John Wick calibre film with fantastic acting and deeper characterisation would be an improvement. But that does not mean that the John Wick movies we have are without value.
The question becomes how much a movie like John Wick, or novels like The Lord of the Rings, or technically adept yet lyrically vacuous music, is worth to us. There are reasons of utility to do this, such as increasing one’s aesthetic appreciation or ability to judge art with some level of nuance, but if nothing else there is always joy. It is a lot of fun to engage this deeply with what you watch, read, or listen to. It’s also a lot of fun to watch John Wick.
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• John Wick, dir. Chad Stahelski (2014)
• John Wick: Chapter 2, dir. Chad Stahelski (2017)
• John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, dir. Chad Stahelski (2019)
• ‘The Legend of Keanu Reeves’, in GQ (2019)
• ‘Selling Us Short’, in Art Of Conversation [online] (2019)