Thursday, May 23, 2019

John Wick

Having had a very wearying end of term, and having finally, finally, completed everything for it, I took some time today to see the third John Wick movie. Overall it's a very interesting franchise.

Imagine an urban fantasy, a spiritual thriller, with something like this plot. The world is dominated by demons, or fallen souls, or some such, that manage to keep themselves just out of hell, and walk the earth maintaining their various fiefdoms, some rough order kept between them under a cutthroat council of the most powerful, all owing fealty, based entirely on power, to one above them all, as they strive to keep out of hell. One of the lesser demons, almost legendary as an enforcer, met an angel, or a good soul, or some such, and fell in love, and decided he wanted out of it all. He performs an impossible task and gets out. But the one he loves is taken away from him, and in a sense doubly taken away from him, and he returns in wrath to get his vengeance -- but once he does, he finds himself dragged further in, and becomes a fugitive from the powers that be.

If you can imagine a story like that, the best way to describe the series is that it is not this story, but it is almost this story. It is not a supernatural thriller, but the symbolism of one is all there; the criminal underworld of assassins, which is the outer face of the story, is blurred in words and in symbols with the actual underworld. In the first movie this is muted and can be missed, although it is undeniable once you see it -- the actual idea around which the script was built was that John, having found salvation, had the source of it ripped from him, and he returns to 'hell'. It becomes much more explicit in Chapter 2, which is structured by two lines: "Do you fear damnation, John?" ("Yes," John replies) and "Now you begin your descent into hell, Mr. Wick." The religious elements become much thicker, in part no doubt for the aesthetics, but also thematically -- learning about the High Table, we get Rome, lots of angels, and religious art, as well as a museum exhibit called 'Reflections of the Soul'. The punishment for breaking one of the unbreakable rules, spilling blood on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, is to become Excommunicado. Chapter 3: Parabellum pulls back from this in some ways and advances it in others: John's ticket for passage is a rosary with a Slavic cross, and his trip to Morocco, where he meets the Elder (the one above the High Table, who quite clearly corresponds to the Devil), is explicitly characterized as a descent into hell in an allusion to Dante, the assassins explicitly use more religious terminology (deconsecrated, penance, etc.), and so forth. The 'demons', that is, assassins, frame their world in Catholic terms, but from the mirror-image side. We also get references here and there to the Greco-Roman as well as the Christian underworld.

All of this could be done very pretentiously, and in most attempts probably would, but the reason for the popularity of the franchise is that it doesn't, not really; indeed, you can watch the movies without catching any more than an occasional metaphor. It's all there, but it's all there in symbolism and background aesthetics and very, very occasional explicit references. The movie itself focuses not on this more 'literary' aspect to the series but on its cinematic strength: spectacle, with a lot of very different fight scenes, excellent semi-realistic fight choreography (liberties taken -- nobody could actually survive what Wick does, but everything done makes some kind of sense in context), in visually stunning environments. Very, very violent, but violent in the way a Jacobin revenge play, or a Greek tragedy, or, for that matter, the Inferno, is violent.

There's a John Wick: Chapter 4 in the works. Given how John's descent into hell goes, the thematic next step would be the ascent of purgatory; although it's very difficult to imagine offhand what a John Wick version of the Purgatorio would be (and even more difficult to imagine any Paradiso, or even any Earthly Paradise, at the end), the three movies we have do set up for something like it. But they've also set things up for a War in Hell, continuing the mirror-image aspect of it: John Wick as a demon rebelling against the devil, the god of this world. And we'll see, but I suspect that we will see John's wedding ring -- symbol of the possibility of salvation -- again.

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