He had written, in letters that had not quite jelled yet, the single word “Delighted.” The Matron of Honor, reading over my shoulder, gave a sound faintly like a snort, but I quickly looked over at the great writer and tried to show by my expression that all of us in the car knew a poem when we saw one, and were grateful. – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a film which discusses John Wick’s relationship with taking the life of another human being. Or rather, many human beings. It purports, and since there was a written script I guess I could say presupposes, that John Wick does not like the concept or this particular action anymore.
What the current installation, the current avatar, of the demi-god John Wick does want is to be left alone. He wants to be left alone to remember and to wear a black suit and to pet and nuzzle his dog on a designer sofa. To frown and stare into the distance with a look suggesting he’s halfway through an eye chart consisting of Keat’s Ode on Melancholy.
But why? This ur-question of story is answered with a shrug. He purportedly prefers this stasis of potential energy to the god-gifted kinesthetic gun-fu ballet because of consequences. His actions have consequences and those consequences can be added and put in a ledger under the heading: casualties. So, our Boogeymonster is now an Achilles who will sit out the battles to come in his tent. We can safely assume it will be black.
The baffling thing about this initial story is that in the first two films, John Wick was specifically not killing for sport or fun or money. In fact, in the first two films, the viewers are informed multiple times (a truly aggravating habit of the scrip writers) that John had given up contract killing and processed all of this already. We have met (very) briefly the people he’s killed over the previous two films and it hasn’t been for laughs and lucre. He did it for revenge, and then he did it because he had to, because they were going to kill him. The people he is killing, the arithmetic problem he is solving, involves not a reduction in sum as the script writers tell us, but the algebraic cancellation of negative numbers, the elimination of negative people, as they show us. So why the expository dialogue-ridden crisis again this time, Baba Yaga?
It’s irrelevant. John Wick kills people anway as we knew he would. The story is a mess but who really cares – by now I know John Wick and it’s like they say about relationships: don’t listen to what they say, observe what they do. And John Wick loves to kill people. This love is not a symptom of malevolence or spiritual bankruptcy. This is a divine blessing, a gift from the many deities invoked in the Epcot Center-variety of mythologies, fairy tales, and bedtime stories card-fanned out by the four corrupt magicians who spackled this script together.
And boy does he kill people. He just kills so, so many people. He kills them with throwing knives and axes and a wedding registry worth of cutlery – alternately heaving and finessing them to their destination the moment a vulnerable island appears on the skeletal armature of his adversary.
He kills people with cars, with motorcycles, with guns. My goodness the guns. Modern guns with number-names and the matte-finish of high technology. Old fashioned guns with silver clanking parts and smooth spinning barrels, their gunpowder’s explosion a satisfying anachronism, revealed on screen with only the briefest symmetrical break to the resultant blood.
Tactical rifles and shotguns supported by or held out from the the bloodied suit, the tired battered body, spraying steel calamity of spark and flare, the reports reverberating through the killing chambers with the culminating grandiosity of thunder.
He kills one man with a horse. And then another foolish man runs right behind the first idiot onto the screen and he does it again! And then, with the audience in a state of near ecstacy, he does it a third time. Marvelous.
But into every life some rain must fall. John Wick is kicked through a case of glass. And then another glass case. And then yet another. I gave up counting after five. When the kicking subsided John was on the floor looking like a broken black Big Wheel, his face glum above the sparkling fragments. I wasn’t worried because he’s John Wick, so while he swayed in agony I admired the remaining vitrines. They were variegated in color and content, housing weapons, masks, armor. Highly stylized, compellingly illuminated. He was kicked through those as well.
The lull in the action, his cessation of movement, reminds me of the story originally proposed: Wick as Achilles. A constant buzz of insult in the wire, insulated by memory. A presence static but never inert, electrically alive with possibility but temporal and finite – what isn’t used can’t be bottled. It is wasted. A sin against the gods.
This is obviously not the John Wick we need. If wasting your talent is a sin, then what is the opposite of sin? What is John in action? John is a poem.
John is confronted by waves of assailants, alternately methodical and frenzied. His reactions (always reactions) are poetry itself: commensurate to their subject, form complimented by rhythm and style, line after line of iambs and trochees, not just rebuking but rebuffing and piercing and ceasing utterly the unwarranted affront, the prosaic ungainliness of the unmetered and clunking foe.
When the fighting finally pauses and we are given a stanza break, the blows reverberate spectacularly with and within the audience for longer than seems probable. Long enough for you to wonder why you don’t ever seem to tire of watching John Wick kill people. Long enough for you to think about John and his gift, and what you do with your own. Long enough for you to wonder if you could recognize a poem when you see one.
P.J. Walsh writes from NYC.