Because of all the Keanu-love that’s been flooding the Internet lately, my husband and I decided to finally start watching the John Wick movies. We settled in with the first one last night, after the kids were in bed, and proceeded to spend c. 90 minutes “relaxing,” aka trying to keep our bodies relatively composed — no yelling, no shadow-boxing — while Reeves’s character slogged through a Brief Compendium of Murder, Domestic and Generall.
Once again I was struck by the sheer joylessness that arrives along with firearms, in American films. Fuck, everyone seems to think, breaking out their pistols and long-rifles and silencers and magazines, needs must. There’s also plenty of hand-to-hand, which I’ll come back to. Interesting things were done with interior space. Wick has to kill people in claustrophobic quarters that present themselves, opportunistically, as assistant-assassins (wow, that guy did not see that banister coming!) or malign agents (wow, Wick did not think to check that window!) When he’s not in a dangerous interior that’s coffinlike along at least one dimension and probably contains either a ledge or a swimming-pool, he inhabits a dangerous exterior scaled to shipping containers and helipads, but not God forbid stairs and sidewalks. The only way to make your way, in a world like this, is to become an armored vehicle that bleeds.
John Wick bleeds plenty, as of course do his victims. But we don’t spend very much time with any of them, so what we notice most is Reeves’s dripping progress through the film. The sanguination begins with the slow red leak John Wick springs when he’s attacked by Eastern European thuglets at the beginning of the movie, and ends with a highly unsatisfactory self-administered field-dressing for a self-inflicted stab-wound — an emblem representative of the Work Entire if I ever saw one. We’re supposed to think hydrogen peroxide and metal sutures must be an okay answer to a three-inch-deep wound, I guess [narrator’s voice: it was not okay] because the next thing John Wick does is adopt a replacement puppy. This is a gesture clearly meant to staple up the audience’s feelings so that we, like Wick, can stagger home and sleep.
I liked the film’s intentional focus on damage done, on the inelegance of the work that killers-for-hire undertake and the way they must learn to patch themselves together physically long after they’ve given up any examination of their own past trauma or current motivations. This isn’t a James Bond film, where sex and high living and murder exist along the same continuum and are mutually infected with the same glamour. In the first John Wick movie at least, everyone thinks murder should occupy a different silo from all other forms of human activity, and that it’s regrettable and ugly when it leaks out. Hence the rigid “no business on the premises” rule of the assassins’ hotel that occupies much of the Flatiron building in Manhattan; hence the awkward policeman arriving to check on John Wick’s suburban home-turned-abattoir at the beginning of the movie, who only reluctantly peeks around the door at the bodies in the corridor. I mean, none of these ‘containment’ techniques are effective…we all know that…and we know, watching John Wick, that a society which prefers to employ local social relationships and conventions to do the work of peacekeeping and lawgiving is a society at least willing to entertain a general disregard for human life. Maybe these movies are so popular because it’s a relief to have that displayed right in front of us, filed under escapism. Or, aha, Action.
Now: martial arts, imagination, & longevity.
I did a lot of Aikido for many years, and practiced Kung Fu for about two, before our third child announced himself and I finally had to give up training for reasons of schedule and psychology. One side-effect of this history is that I love watching hand-to-hand combat and falling technique in movies. I even like watching them in football ! although nothing else about the game has ever stuck and the NFL’s semi-military nationalistic pageantry gives me the heebie-jeebies (sorry, honey.) It’s wild to watch 250-300 pound players perform careful, force-absorbing breakfalls on the field in order to protect their joints which are, let’s face it, a large part of their professional livelihood. I enjoy seeing that part. I like it when folks take care of themselves, on purpose.
Martial arts, and football, require practitioners to engage in a constant high-stakes game of alternating risk and retrenchment when it comes to their own bodies. If you don’t extend yourself and play all out sometimes, you won’t get the attention from your teammates and fellow practitioners that allows you to learn and improve your skills. If you constantly play with everything you’ve got without adding supportive measures like diet, rest, and self-pacing (plus medical advice!) you’re going to cause early degenerative damage to your body at best. Luck is involved too of course. Career-ending injuries happen in the scrum of the game, or during a crowded seminar or an adrenaline-fueled public martial arts demonstration. Mistakes of all varieties occur. I was once at a packed Aikido seminar where two practitioners collided during the warmup, and one went directly to the ER with an orbital fracture. The warmup. Anyway.
Accidents aside, I’m now in the phase of my phased-out martial arts career where I hear what the people who’ve been doing it for a truly long time are experiencing in their bodies. One of my Aikido friends had a hip-replacement when he was about fifty, and a replacement hip-replacement a few years later when the shank of the artificial joint snapped. (yeah. ouch.) His wife my dear friend Julie, also a longtime Aikidoka…like, from the seventies in NYC baby…just had to get the same operation this past month and is currently rehabbing at home. When I checked in on her she said, “did you hear?”: yet another friend, a pillar of my years in graduate school and one of the nicest and toughest guys I know, is reluctantly queuing up to get the diagnosis, worn out hip, and start thinking about the procedure. He’s about sixty, and I have zero doubt that he’s c. five years behind the hip-replacement curve due both to stubbornness and an unhealthily high tolerance for pain.
All this is to say nothing of the osteoarthritis, the painful toes and knees and fingers, their cartilage long since scrubbed out through a combination of strange pressures and overuse. Or the dislocated shoulder that “popped right back in” but still hurts on rainy days, the now-vocal hyperextended elbows, the painful wrists subjected for too long to routine, extreme compression in goose-neck locks and submission holds. I have some of these, and I was not all-in by any means. I was a semi-recreational Aikidoka. A quarter-pro. Which brings me back to John Wick, and thence believe it or not to Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond.
One of the things I think about when I watch a movie like John Wick, is what it’s going to feel like to be John Wick if he survives. If, gasp, he AGES. Probably…not good. Just from this one movie we’re talking painful and recurrent internal adhesions from poorly-doctored stab-wounds and bullet-wounds; a lot of permanent trauma to joints both big and small; and serious probable upper-back issues due to repeated full-body impact on hard surfaces. And as we all know, a.) there’s backstory, probably ex-military, which can’t have been low-mileage and b.) he has at least three more movies to get through.
But movies like John Wick are not about long-term survival. They seem to be — that’s what we’re technically rooting for, we think we’re rooting for his life — but they are utterly disinterested in what it would mean for Reeves’s character to have an existence apart from the one in which he tears other people apart and is, in turn, torn by them. He has a weaponized past and a weaponized present, but no imagined future, so there’s no need to think about things like is he going to need a wheelchair in ten years or, since he is clearly being set up for chronic, crippling pain, should we be worried about opioid addiction? And, I mean, I understand that this is an assassin-movie. It’s playing by the rules of the genre. Fine. But I want to understand where my interest in the genre ends. And it seems to end at the point where we like, or cheer, or appreciate the fact that John Wick can’t imagine any kind of sustained ongoingness for himself, and therefore won’t take any actually careful individual steps to support that. Oh, he’ll liberate a puppy all right. But will he go see a doctor? He will not. Don’t tell me this is badass. Badass, as far as I’m concerned, is the sensation you get when you try to sit down using a rapidly-deteriorating femur-head.
Yes. I don’t like; I object to; fictional glorification of the kind of despair-fueled male physical virtuosity and “endurance” that leads to long-term chronic unmanageable male pain. This is, also, a beef I have with Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. If you’ve read the series, and if you’ve engaged with the fandom at all, you know that the books consist in significant part of Francis Crawford of Lymond slowly flaying and mutilating himself for the public good, over the course of six volumes. You also know that this backloaded horror-show is considered to be well-justified by the happy ending. What do you think it feels like to be an ageing Francis Crawford? Why did we need to watch him do that to himself? And why do we still, against all evidence, believe the story ends well?