John Wick

I don't know if you've read Green Eggs and Ham lately. Unless you are a parent of a small child you probably haven't. Still, I'm sure you remember the gist even if it's been awhile: Sam-I-Am is hellbent on making his friend eat a very specific delicacy in all manner of settings and with all manner of company, but his friend has no interest in sampling this (admittedly gross sounding) dish, not even with a fox in a box or in a house with a mouse. When you Are a kid the book seems to be full of endless crazy possibilities but when you come back to as an adult it's obvious that it is structured as a cycle, where every new idea that Sam-I-Am proposes is then followed up with him repeating the old suggestions again. It's a brilliant way to create the impression of variety while actually being very formulaic.

John Wick is an action movie that is a lot like Green Eggs and Ham in that regard. While I was watching it I kept thinking that John Wick was capable of killing anyone with anything. He's such an unstoppable badass that you just know that he could kill someone with a paperclip or a marshmallow peep if he wanted to; the character is portrayed as being that resourceful, remorseless and vindictive. However, that's more of a theory than a practice - we don't actually get to see John Wick use any incredibly unusual objects as weapons.  He mostly cycles through the same small arsenal of killing devices that any other killer would use - guns, knives and fists. (Also: rocket launchers. The man might not be super creative but he definitely means business.)The film's relentless pacing helps to obscure the fact that most of the scenes in the last half of the movie are just variations on scenes we saw in the first half of the movie, and that variations aren't even that different from each other, but if you step back from the action even for a second the movie's endless recycling becomes a bit of a problem.

John Wick's set up is simple: a former hitman named John Wick gets married to a lovely woman who then immediately dies from cancer. (Their marriage lasts maybe sixty seconds, which is quick even by Vegas standards.)  However, right before she goes to the great beyond she gives him an adorable puppy and he immediately transfers all of his love for her to his little golden snuggle-monster. Then a mobster's son makes a huge mistake and murders that puppy. This forces John Wick to come out of retirement so he can slaughter the cocky dog-killing bastard. Before John Wick can do that, however, he has to have to work his way through a lot of bodyguards, henchmen and flunkies. It's basically the set up you might see in a video game - the hero destroys a bunch of random people en route to killing a little boss (say, the head bodyguard) but as soon as he kills the little boss the real target escapes. So he goes to the next location, kills some more random people, then he finally gets his initial target only to have a new boss reveals itself. (The ultimate showdown is actually with the mobster, not his son.) The fact that Wick's immediate target keeps getting upgraded creates the sense of momentum even though the plot is actually full of switchbacks that are moving us backwards as often as they are moving us forward.

Of course, there are a lot of action movies that have used a similar structure - it is a logical way to string together a series of action sequences. What sets John Wick apart from your average straight to video shoot-em-up is that the action is so flashy and so well choreographed that it kind of fools you into thinking that you're watching a better movie than you really are. The film has absolutely no fat in it - the entire first act of the story is knocked out in less than ten minutes! - and it's big gun brawls have a kinetic quality that's hard to deny. However, it's generic structure drags it from "all time classic" to "pretty solid entertainment" - which is frustrating because it was so close to being great. There was a good ten minute chunk in the movie's middle where I was trying to count how many goons John Wick was annihilating. I stopped counting at around thirty because I realized that there was no point in thinking about it. Once I went back to passively watching the screen I started enjoying the movie again, and that's great. However, it would never have occurred to me to even start counting in a better written thriller.

Don't get me wrong: I understand why action movie fans adored this movie. After all, it definitely keeps almost every promise it makes. It establishes early on that it will not be too plot heavy and it isn't; it also establishes early on that the violence will be visceral and then it is; it establishes early on that it will be visually dynamic and it is. That puts it leagues ahead of a lot of other action movies, which are often too complicated, or too tame, or too busy to be much fun. It's just that I think that John Wick would have been nearly twice as exciting if our titular killer had been slightly more inventive with his murdering tactics. He's a great shot, lethal with hand to hand combat, and fully equipped with the tools of the trade. And that would be fine except he's not just a killer, he's the Bogeyman - the killer who is so supernaturally good at what he does that the other hitmen whisper his name instead of speaking it. If he's that impressive, why does he have to kill everyone in such pedestrian ways? I'm not against killing people in pedestrian ways (...in an action movie...) but John Wick is killing so damn many people that at a certain point the novelty wears off. There's only so many times you can see him shot a stranger in the heart before you wish that he would start trying to stab his newest victim with some office supplies or camping trip snacks.

It might sound odd to compare Green Eggs and Ham with John Wick because they are so different in tone and they are intended for such different audiences. After all, one is an innocent children's book and the other is a super violent thriller. However, it's a comparison that makes sense to me, because they are both simplified narratives about obsessive nutjobs that are built around repetition. As such, it feels a little silly to nitpick John Wick the same way it would feel silly to nitpick Green Eggs and Ham. Neither one of those stories is trying to create a richly textured narrative; they are both just trying to keep upping the ante until they reach their ridiculous conclusions, and they both do a fine enough job of that. However, given that they are already in pre-production for John Wick 2 I feel like it’s worth pointing out that there’s room for improvement. If you’re gonna impress me, John Wick, you’re gonna have to go a little beyond killing a thug with a knife or goon with a gun to maybe killing a bodyguard with a boy scout’s boxcar derby car or a flunky with an unrolled  fruit roll up. After all, I can’t imagine that Green Eggs and Ham 2 would settle for giving us even more foxes in boxes or mouses in houses.

Winner: Me

John Wick on IMDB