I like John Wick. You like John Wick too. I like John Wick 2. Everyone likes John Wick. Well, maybe PETA have some issues with a certain plot point in the first movie, but I’m sure we can all amicably agree that the sacrifice was necessary. I’m talking, of course, of the dog that was sacrificed to push Mr. Wick back into action, birthing an action franchise that has sensibly handed much-needed creative control to stunt performers and not to executive producers. And no dogs were actually killed during the making of the film, that’s probably worth mentioning too. If we’re gonna harp on it. And it looks like we’re going that direction. So as John Wick: Chapter 2 graces our cinema screens, Optimism Vaccine decided we’d step up and take a look at some movies cut from similar, possibly Kevlar reinforced cloth. And we’ll just clarify here that, despite it also featuring a canine-fueled vengeance scene, Steven Seagal’s Out for Justice didn’t make the cut. Please accept our humblest apologies. Of course, while filming his shitty lawman show, Seagal allegedly killed someone’s dog. So if he keeps that up, there’s a chance he’ll eventually appear in something reminiscent of the John Wick franchise anyway.
The Tale Of Zatoichi (1962)
“Don’t take me for a fool just because I am blind.”
The John Wick films are revelations, complete marvels of taut, economic storytelling and kinetic, gorgeously-choreographed action sequences, bolstered by a strong central turn from Keanu Reeves. They give me serious hope for the future of action cinema. One of the more exuberant qualities found within the Wick films is the fascinating attention paid to detail, namely, their clear sense of world-building. Payment for goods and services is tendered with gold coins. Mercenaries operate as homeless people in subterranean levels of New York City subway stations. And there’s an unspoken “honor among thieves” code of conduct that permeates the seedy underground in which the characters inhabit, offering a helping of texture to its modest B-movie thrills. Reeves’ Wick may be capable of transforming into a stone-cold killer at the drop of a hat, but he is nothing if not honorable. It’s a theme that resonates loudly in Wick, and it’s one that was also explored to great lengths in the classic Japanese samurai film, 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi. The first in a series of 25 films (not counting the 2003 remake by Takeshi Kitano), The Tale of Zatoichi is a decidedly much more modest affair than the propulsive John Wick films. The film introduces the titular blind masseur and expert swordsman, Zatoichi (played by the great Shintarô Katsu, who would go on to reprise his role 24 more times). Zatoichi has been hired for his skills with the blade by yakuza lord Sukegoro, who is feuding with rival lord Shigezo. Shigezo, in turn, hires Ronin Hirate, a noble man slowly succumbing to consumption. As tensions boil between the two yakuza clans, the duel between Zatoichi and Hirate slowly but surely becomes inevitable.
For a series touted for its epic moments of swordplay, one might be surprised to find how minimal swords are drawn in The Tale of Zatoichi (the first blade is not unsheathed until about 40 minutes into the picture, and that’s to slice a candle in half, even separating the still-burning wick into two fresh halves). The film is a much more deliberate character study, opting to examine the life of a man who has dedicated himself to taking the lives of others. When we first meet Zatoichi, his physical presence is disarmingly atypical of what one’s perception of a trained swordsman might actually be. He’s not remarkably fit, even a little pudgy in shape, and he awkwardly shuffles forward slowly with the use of a cane, careful not to compromise his footing. But therein lies Zatoichi’s greatest asset; he draws strength from his disability, and any fool unwise enough to underestimate him quickly feels the wrath of his blade. Much of the film running time is dedicated to Zatoichi’s cordial acquaintance with the Ronin Hirate. Both men are cognizant of the fact that they destined to do battle with each other, but they have the utmost respect for each other, and the bond they form is entirely honorable. For those looking for a refined companion-piece to the bursting energy of John Wick, why not check out The Tale of Zatoichi?
A Bittersweet Life (2005)
On first watching John Wick, the film I was immediately reminded of was Jee-woon Kim’s A Bittersweet Life. Both films share a sleek, modernist production aesthetic, impossibly dapper protagonists, attentively detailed flourishes of violence, and muscular fight choreography. They also share an arched-eyebrow awareness of their genre’s assumptions, although that manifests differently between the two.
Both films share a feminine ideal that fundamentally changes their protagonists’ lives. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has left a life of professional murder for the love of a “good woman.” Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee), a gangster enforcer who has no purpose but to enact his employer’s bidding, begins to question his austere existence and allegiances when enchanted by the femininity of his boss’ girlfriend. Such ideals are, of course, ridiculous. They play off a persistent notion that men are fundamentally brutish animals while women are delicate, nurturing wisps. A traditional couple then, a man and a woman, form a balanced and sustainable unit. Except the same prevailing wisdom posits that men are also naturally loners, so I guess they can still sustain, they’re just not as happy as they could be. So it’s pretty convenient that men are apparently also naturally stoic. Basically, men are great. Now, before you go claiming that’s kinda sexist, let’s be clear, women are definitely great too. You just wouldn’t want to be one. But you might consider forgoing alpha-male status to live with one. Yup, that’s the lesson. But I still really like action movies. Sorry.
Getting back to the matter at hand, where the two diverge is how they harness action cinema’s lazy ideological tenets. John Wick isn’t in the mood to be subversive, but there comes a certain point, say, when a heavily tattooed gangster priest is performing mass to provide a front to the Russian mob, or when a retired hitman kills literally hundreds of people in a chain of events set in motion by a dead dog, when it’s obvious the film is keenly aware and embraces its fanciful framework. It freely indulges in the tropes, but avoids much of the dubious emotional clutter that too many action films mistakenly think they can cultivate. John Wick misses his wife, he loved her. Whatever. He pulls out his phone now and then and has a sad-faced reminisce but he mostly murders people. Seriously, what kind of a husband could this guy be? John Wick without murder is just a guy who owns a suit. His wife and their perfect, loving relationship is a barely even an idea. It’s a non-entity. A Macguffin. Or maybe that’s the dog? MacGruffin the Trope Dog? Yes, this paragraph should end now.
A Bittersweet Life takes a different tact, ironically a more romantic one, considering its protagonist doesn’t even have a dead wife to render him human. It’s a more bro-mantic tact really, courting men’s belief that, yes they do have feelings, but they keep them buried deep down inside. A belief often held by the same men who openly cry at sports events. Go figure. The whole, “it was all a dream,” is probably the worst cliché in the history of film clichés, yet, thanks to Kim’s deft allusion, it provides an interesting lens here. Kim knows the elements he’s toying with are the stuff of male fantasy. Sun-woo succeeds in eradicating those that wronged him, but his embrace of violence means, dramatically, that the circle can only be closed with his death. But after his death, the film’s final scene shows Sun-woo shadow-boxing his own reflection in a window, his figure illuminated by Seoul’s twinkling skyline. In that quiet, private moment, he smiles. It’s about the only emotion Sun-woo externalizes throughout the whole movie. It might be a dying man’s dream, a flashback to before events went sour, or perhaps a scene of reality that distinguishes the rest of the film as a flight of fantasy. That ambiguity, and the scene’s unexpected warmth, suggest that, if nothing else it’s a reminder to not take it all too seriously.
A Bittersweet Life gleefully indulges in crunching action sequences and blood-soused gun-battles. It freely engages with male fantasy. But then that final shot unveils the construct. Assuming every punch thrown and every bullet fired was a dream, we know nothing about Sun-woo’s real life, but he’s day-dreaming about escaping the shackles of a job through violent perseverance, while nursing an unrequited infatuation with a woman he hardly knows. The backdrop to all this is an exclusive club known as La Dolce Vita- the sweet life. That’s also the literal translation of the Korean title. It was a poetic marketing twist that rendered it ‘bitter’ for English-language audiences. It’s also a fairly famous Italian movie, but who watches those? In any case, it’s an ironic comment on the main event. As Sun-woo shadow-boxes, engaging with his own self-perception reflected in that window, perhaps it will set in motion a real change in his life, away from material things and quiet deference. Or maybe his brains really are leaking out on the carpet? We’ll never know, but the dissonance offers a poetic coda on masculine construction. We can roll with the punches or we could reach out and forge a real emotional connection with someone. Kim offers us men two roads. Which is handy because, as we all know, real men do not ask for directions.
Premium Rush (2012)
I love John Wick for it’s simplicity. Rarely do you find an action movie that so thoroughly repels plot complexity. The film uses basic genre tropes as tent poles to hold up its straightforward, taut, well-made one room tent. From the beginning, you know exactly where the film is going, and you get to sit back and enjoy this very simple revenge yarn.
Five years ago, Premium Rush did something similar. The film is about New York bike messengers whose biggest obstacles are city traffic and city cops. Like Wick, Premium Rush fills a very contained world with characters who possess a special set of skills and a specific goal. Where Wick is all about avenging a dog and getting back a car, Premium Rush is about successfully delivering packages.
The beauty of both films is not just their simplicity, but how efficient they are in executing their plot. In Premium Rush, each scene affects the entire constellation of characters, and each character has a clearly defined role. It’s always the protagonist against the antagonist, on the base level of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, and nearly every movement is about the current state of this relationship.
In quick, tightly plotted action films like this, the entertainment is found in the use of stunts, pacing, tropes, and editing. Premium Rush closes with a brief monologue about an ode to our protagonist’s fixed gear bike. He can’t stop, he can only learn how to control where he’s going. And for 90 minutes, it’s fun to watch the film do the same.
This film is so simple I fear it will recede into obscurity before long, if it hasn’t already. If Premium Rush does fade from cultural memory, my hope is that it gets a minor resurrection some 30 years down the road. And if it does, it will surely be due to Michael Shannon’s wonderfully villainous caricature. Shannon, who has graduated to a much larger stage since, plays a slimy, shockingly violent, gambling addicted cop who is trying to intercept a package from our bike riding protagonist, Joseph Gordon Levitt.
The magic of Shannon’s over-the-top villain is how it breathes life into such a straightforward story. His instincts to curry the film with high-pitched, teeth-clenching snickers might be just what Premium Rush needed to live on, eventually, as a cult classic.