The Generosity of the 'John Wick' Movies
Plus: Another disgraceful week at Congress, as the CEO of Tiktok testifies.
I remember Ebert once described the Alex Proyas film Dark City as a “generous” movie.
I was watching the DVD Special Features for Dark City (New Line Platinum edition, baby!) and in an interview, Ebert talks about how much detail and scope is present throughout the city itself — details that the filmmaker didn’t even need to include, but that he did in the hopes of providing the viewer a richer experience. Ebert mentions generosity in his review of Dark City as well (emphasis mine):
In October, I went through "Dark City" a shot at a time for four days at the Hawaii Film festival, with moviegoers who were as curious as I was. We froze frames, we dissected special effects, we debated the meaning of the film, and our numbers even included a psychiatrist who told us of the original Daniel Schreber, a schizophrenic whose book on his condition influenced Freud and Jung. Sometimes during the shot-by-shot analysis, we simply froze a frame and regarded it. Some of the street scenes echo paintings by Edward Hopper or Jack Vettriano. This is not only a beautiful film but a generous one, which supplies rich depth and imagination and many more details than are really necessary to tell the story.
[Side note: Someone on the internet compiled many of Ebert’s best observations on Dark City into a video. It reminded me how much I miss Ebert’s work and how much he added to my understanding of film and film criticism. Sigh.]
I mention generosity because this is the term I think of when I think about the John Wick movies, Chapter 4 of which is out this weekend. What got its start as a simple story about a widower out to avenge the murder of his puppy has morphed into a sprawling and ridiculous fantasia of violence spanning multiple continents and dozens of shady characters, all of whom have some kind of history with John Wick. Along the way, the action scenes have increased in scope, the weapons have become more varied, and the outfits have gotten even more refined and bulletproof.
Behind every decision in the John Wick movies lies the following question: “Will this look cool on screen?” And while this does make for some very memorable visuals, it doesn’t make for particularly great storytelling or world-building. I think the plot of these films are complete nonsense — beautiful people in beautiful rooms intoning grave things about the nature of honor the “High Table” and the consequences for breaking some unspoken series of rules. There are markers and gold coins and other totems of massive significance but it doesn’t really feel like it adds up to much. As the series has gone on, it feels like it’s stretched out its threadbare premise to the breaking point.
Why, then, do I still think the movie is generous? Because whenever I watch a John Wick movie, I get the sense that the filmmakers are trying to show you something new. Every John Wick movie is structured around a set of action scenes and whenever a new one begins, there is never a sense of “Been there, done that.” These filmmakers want each action scene to be a piece of art unto itself. They understand that at the end of the day, if the set piece isn’t adding something new to the John Wick canon, it has no reason to exist.
You’ve seen John Wick shoot dozens of guys in the head. What if he was throwing knives instead? You’ve seen him stab a bunch of dudes. Well what if the dudes have really thick body armor that he needs to shoot around? You’ve seen him use assault weapons and most conventional pistols. Well, what if he was using nunchucks and katana blades instead? What if he used a horse? What if he had to drive a car and shoot people at the same time? What if we had Halle Berry train some dogs for attacking the people? What if what if what if….
John Wick Chapter 4 feels like the culmination of everything this franchise is trying to say about modern action filmmaking. The John Wick series has always respected the work of stunt performers; 2014’s John Wick was directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (both primarily known as a stunt performers at the time) and the franchise frequently pulls off death-defying stunts, filming them in longer shots and at wider angles so you can understand what’s happening. Chapter 4 is no different. And after watching movies like Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, it is refreshing to watch a movie and get the sense that real actors went to a place and actually did a thing (my standards for movies are plummeting these days).
The first two hours of the film are fairly standard when it comes to Wick with one huge exception: martial arts legend Donnie Yen plays an antagonist in the film and he brings an incredible charisma and physicality to his role. I loved seeing Wick go up against someone who actually felt appropriately formidable. But it’s the final hour when things really head to the next level. This movie has action scenes that are so dazzling and ambitious that they were literally jaw-dropping. Stuff that I don’t believe has even been attempted before. Stuff that made me think that these filmmakers wanted to show me something I’d never seen before.
It’s a level of generosity that is somewhat rare in movies these days and I appreciated it.
The Sad Spectacle of the Tiktok Hearing
This week, Tiktok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. I don’t think anyone came out of this thing looking great.
House members came off as grandstanding assholes who’d already made up their minds about what was going to happen. Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers set the tone in her opening statement, saying, “We do not trust Tiktok will ever embrace American values — values for freedom, human rights, and innovation…Your platform should be banned.” Other lawmakers seemed to take her lead, frequently attacking Chew and Tiktok’s potentially scary influence while not allowing Chew a chance to respond, even when there was ample time leftover for him to do so. In conducting themselves so disgracefully, our lawmakers squandered opportunities for all of us to potentially learn things about how Tiktok handles data privacy. They also generally looked completely ignorant about both world affairs (not seeming to understand that Chew is Singaporean, not Chinese) and technology in general (“Does Tiktok access the home wifi network??”).
One of the things that’s most maddening about this spectacle is the hypocritical posturing. Committee members claim to care about “the children,” but do little to give children the financial resources they need, nor to alleviate the fact that gun violence is the leading cause of death in children (a staggering statistic). They attacked Tiktok for how it handles data, all while knowing that American companies also have the potential to violate user privacy in similar ways. The whole thing reeked of ignorance and xenophobia.
Meanwhile, over on Tiktok, Chew is going viral as users rush to his defense. But I don’t think Chew did particularly well either. He performed the basic tasks required of him. He stayed calm and collected while lawmakers spouted nonsense. But he also came off as pretty junior and didn’t respond forcefully to legitimate concerns that lawmakers had. Ultimately, he failed to make the case that the United States has nothing to fear from Tiktok. I’d give his performance a B or a B- when what he really needed was an A.
So what’s next? Is what we witnessed a precursor to big actions that Congress will take? Or is this grandstanding a replacement for actually meaningful legislative action, as it has been so many times in the past? Your guess is as good as mine. I think a ban is definitely possible but probably won’t happen for at least a few months. In the meantime, let’s just say I’m really glad I have a connection to you, dear reader, via an app that is not Tiktok.
Other Stuff David Chen Has Made
I’m playing around with the idea of doing a weekly live broadcast discussing topics I’m passionate about (like the above!). I gave it a shot this week and you can watch the results on YouTube here. I’m grateful to Chris Rudd and Peter Sciretta for joining me for one of my first outings as we discussed Mondo shutting down its poster division, the Tiktok hearing, and John Wick Chapter 4.
Over on Decoding TV, Kim Renfro and I are covering Succession, whose final season is premiering tomorrow. Be sure to subscribe to get all our coverage.
Also on YouTube, @joyonapping and I did yet another broadcast focused on the Oscars, because what better time is there to discuss the Oscars than long after everyone has stopped discussing or caring about them?
On The Filmcast, we reviewed Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a review so contentious it may have almost broken up our podcast!
Also on The Filmcast, I tried to AI voice clone my co-hosts. The results were creepy and hilarious.
"It’s a level of generosity that is somewhat rare in movies these days and I appreciated it."
Feel that way about you as a critic and producer. You are an impeccable and generous engineer creating a media culture that brings people into each other's awareness and empowers them to take chances knowing they aren't doing it alone.
Only other person I'd put on a similar level is FD Signifier on YouTube for cultural and political commentary. He similarly has a unique gift for bringing together and empowering like minds.
Which is why I'll probably never take my career as high as it could go. The Daniels made it all the way to the Oscars, but they had to stop listening to your podcasts??? A price too high!
Leave the Oscar, bring the Chen.
Hi Dave. Given that you’ve become quite adept at creating very good Tik Tok videos, are you concerned about the platform being shut down? (I mean in a personal sense, setting aside the large political and cultural implications.) Or will you simply shrug and focus on your other SM activities. I’m actually not on Tik Tok, but I enjoy seeing Tik Tok content when a good vid pops up on one of the platforms that I DO use. Interested in your thoughts. Thank you!