I like to check out movies that resonate with Americans and out-perform expectations at the box office. Their success often means they’re connecting with audiences in ways that reviewers and other cultural elites don’t recognize or fully appreciate.
This is the case with the “John Wick” movies, whose box office keeps surprising on the upside. The latest, “Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” out-earned its predecessors in its first 10 days.
Despite being a live-action version of video-game violence, the series is a genuine work of art that addresses a profound subject and borrows from a remotely connected major performing art. Who’d have thought?
That subject is how people can control and perhaps rise above the relentless pursuit of self-interest that has been their nature since before they became human. Like our fellow animals, we survived and developed thanks to an unthinking, even ruthless focus on what advances our lives. Now the need for human organization requires that animal competition be limited in its destructiveness, so we try to constrain it with shared laws, customs and beliefs.
In the Wick movies, the world is full of self-interested killers who see the need for rules, and order that is preserved by an Upper Table of crime lords. It enforces the rules and dispenses credits and indulgences — “otherwise we are just animals.” Everyone pledges to serve this order, from the slums in the Middle East to the most luxurious Manhattan high rises.
Naturally, the rules are sometimes bent or ignored and self-interest is served instead. Friendships, loyalties, beliefs and support for this imperfect human organization are tested and undone. Just like the real world.
John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, could be any middle-aged guy in a blue suit dragging himself to the office every day — not to do what he wants, but what he must to out-compete enough others. He never shows any sign of enjoying his work because he has experienced something better. He alone among the assassins managed to get out, escape the killing competition and find love, peace and happiness. Then disease took his wife and the foolish son of a crime boss unwittingly dragged him back in. Since then, for three whole movies so far, it has been nonstop exhausting fights and killing.
The series also may be enjoyed for the surprising inventiveness and beauty of the personal combat choreography. In his years as a stuntman, director Chad Stahelski apparently learned to approach this action-movie staple with modern-dance skills. The result is what critics have called “elegant escapism” for those who aren’t troubled by graphic violence that never seems real, as in a video game.
The Wick movies achieve their dual goals of high-end fight choreography and making palpable the dog-eat-dog grimness too common to life and video games by almost completely dispensing with story development. Both are experienced directly and intensely.
There is evidence that this is exactly what Stahelski intended.
In the only segment of “Chapter 3 – Parabellum” unrelated to the fighting, a character named the Director, played by Anjelica Huston, sits in a theater ordering an exhausted ballerina to keep repeating a series of turns. Later, when Upper Table troops come to punish her, she’s guiding the dancer and six others in a dress rehearsal.
These dancers are real-life members of New York City Ballet, as is their fellow dancer who choreographed the performance. City Ballet and its founder, George Balanchine, are known worldwide for letting dance stand on its own without the trappings of a story. As if to put an exclamation point on the reference, Stahelski runs the gunplay through the plaza and famous fountain of Lincoln Center, where City Ballet performs.
Even though this is their city’s world famous ballet company, reviewers Joe Morgenstern for The Wall Street Journal and Jeanette Catsoulis for The New York Times didn’t make the connection. That’s understandable because it’s hard to see things even right in front of you if they don’t fit your expectations. A more astounding example of such a lack of awareness was the failure of critics to see that the science fiction classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” was loosely based on the most widely known story of western culture, the Passion of Jesus Christ — despite the visiting alien taking the name John Carpenter, being thoughtlessly killed by authorities, and returning to offer encouragement and a warning to mankind.
Using a ballet-style structure to create a new and satisfying movie experience makes Stahelski’s “Wick” films good popular art. They could become great if they point at how to transcend a life of mere self-interest.
One great work of art is certain on the same Regal Hamilton Commons screen now showing Wick’s inspired fight choreography. On April 19 next year, the Bolshoi Ballet in a simulcast will perform the Balanchine masterpiece “Jewels,” the most famous example of a full-length ballet with no story.
Email Kevin Post at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 609-272-7250.