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“American Sniper” and “John Wick”

Intentionally or not, the action-crime movie “John Wick” sheds light on the widespread American praise and high gross for “American Sniper”. Wick has so far grossed a respectable $73m on a $20m budget. “American Sniper” is far exceeding that.

Americans cannot face their guilt over Iraq. They need mythical heroes to convince themselves that America did the right thing in attacking Iraq. But even apart from Iraq, there are longstanding American attitudes, mentioned below, that surround American adulation of violence and its military forces.

The kinds of attitudes that gird “John Wick” and are on display in that movie are the same ones that support “American Sniper”. We simply have two different kinds of murderers in these two movies, and that obscures the parallels. One is a hit man and the other is a paid soldier.

The summary comments of reviewers in the Wikipedia article uniformly focus on descriptions that do not probe beneath the surface: “Stylish, thrilling, and giddily kinetic…”; “fired-up, ferocious B-movie fun…”; “remorseless verve”; “a technically impeccable actioner”; “Harbouring few ambitions beyond knock-your-socks-off action sequences”. These reviewers are taken in by the “shock and awe” of the film. They could be describing cruise missile attacks. They do not see or point out the movie’s subtext. There is a parallel here with the blindness of the American public. The movie’s makers themselves do not realize the basic American presumptions that shine through the comic book story and its glitzy action.

The character “John Wick” is a retired hit man who attacks his former employer, a Russian mobster because the latter’s son has stolen his car and killed a puppy that was a gift of and a link to his deceased wife. The mobster tries to save his son from Wick’s retribution by negotiation but Wick hangs up on him. The mobster then sends a squad to kill Wick and their battle zooms into high gear. The body count mounts rapidly, as in many spaghetti westerns. Wick dispatches a platoon of assailants single-handedly and expertly. He’s a superman. Supermen, like superstates, don’t need to negotiate. The fights are choreographed as in many Hong Kong action pictures.

“John Wick” is an abstract kind of movie. The story has been reduced and simplified to the point where it delivers simple pivot points into explosively violent episodes. That’s the first abstraction. It is very similar to the simple stories that American government uses to sell its policies to the public. Next, Keanu Reeves as John Wick is virtually a superman, a marksmen whose reactions are so swift that he’s almost untouchable. The raising of a mortal man into a being whose will and powers are so superior is a second form of abstraction.

Wick is an unconscious metaphor for U.S. power and invincibility. The attack on him, his dog and his car destroy his tranquility. That attack stands in for 9/11. His subsequent counterattack, out of all proportion, is his personal war on terror.

Wick presents us with a curious mixture of heat and cold. The moral universe he inhabits is one of hot emotion. The surroundings in which he operates is cold. When he kills, it is often machine-like. It is distant. But quite often, it becomes hot and dangerous in hand-to-hand situations. The movie’s creators are most interested in the choreography of death and killing. There is a combination of fury delivered with cold precision in this movie that reflects how Americans go about their 21st century wars. The real-world combination of cold delivery of firepower through drones, bombs and missiles, and hot delivery through close-in combat finds its counterpart in Wick’s delivery of violence.

But the movie’s basic thematic fascination is with untethered revenge, excessive revenge, and destructive revenge. The Russians are convenient targets. They might be any number of other convenient enemies with Balkan roots or Colombian roots or any other enemy-of-the-day. They might even be Iraqis, as in “American Sniper”.

We are seeing the urge to lash back. It is being shown here as irresistible, a powerful force delivered with almost machine-like proficiency by a professional assassin. He may as well be a Navy SEAL sniper, and he is assisted in the movie by Willem Dafoe who actually is a sniper.

The story also has a large nod to “professionalism” and the “code” among the criminals. The professionals who made this film poured their creative energy into new ways to show us people being killed by Wick. They were very intensely concerned with choreographing the violence.

“John Wick” is a movie that, knowingly or unknowingly, reflects deep currents in American life: the thirst for an enemy, the quest for revenge, the glorification of professionalism, the ready adoption of force and violence, the conquering power of the hero, and the belief that the deaths visited upon the enemy are justified by what that enemy has done. Turning the other cheek is completely out of the question in this mindset, but so are reason, balance and reconciliation. Just as the U.S. no longer negotiates as equals, and not without applying force and sanctions, neither does Wick. His response to losing his car and dog is unbalanced and excessive, as well as being excessively violent to the exclusion of all other options. This reflects contemporary and past currents in American life.

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1:18 pm on January 23, 2015