John Wick 4 vs. the Guardians of the Galaxy 3

Now that American audiences are gorging on a steady diet of franchise films, it seems fair to compare and contrast two of the year’s bigger entries, John Wick 4 and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 (both purported to be end chapters to their respective sagas, a state of things believed by none) and offer a recommendation as to which might be more worthy of your time and money.

There are two points I would like to address before all that:

> why do we watch movies?
> why did I watch these particular ones?

The reasons we watch movies are varied and is a far bigger topic than I could do justice to here, but the takeaway I want to share is that we have been inculcated with the “audience in a dark cave listening to a story” vibe since forever. We have always enjoyed escaping from our shared reality into an imagined one via a well-told tale in a darkened room with other members of our tribe, whether fixing our gaze on the elder or altar or stage or screen.

It’s that heady mix of the waking dream-like trance we fall into when a great story engages us along with the willing suspension of our disbelief that leads us to willingly submit ourselves to what (we hope) is some satisfying intellectual and emotional manipulation (and when I say manipulation, I mean in the most positive sense, like good sex requires physical manipulation).

Roger Ebert said “…for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” To explain why that is crucial to the process, let me double up and quote the late scriptwriting coach Blake Snyder when he asserts that “…liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” If you’ve ever traveled with someone you didn’t like, you’ll know this is true.

To the second point, other than the exceptional craft involved in their construction, I can only point to my childhood exposure to violence and comic books as to why either genre-specific film appeals to me now.

When you learn the unfortunate language of violence as a child, even though you hate it, you immediately recognize that its power is undeniable. As a result, to see it stylized and employed in a gleeful fashion to serve the hero’s journey is always a part of these stories I find hugely enjoyable. I live for that catharsis sometimes.

When you learn the language of comic books as a child, you are introduced to a cinematic universe inside your head, where action and words are combined on the page in a dramatic form of storytelling. In fact, the storyboards for films – even by professed “I’ll never make a comic movie” directors – are almost identical (oh, the irony!).

As for the films, if you like either franchise you’ll have probably seen one or both of their “final chapters,” and if you don’t like either series, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far; however, please continue and allow me to explain why at least one of them is worth your consideration.

I’m a simple man who tends to reduce things to their most basic elements, I think all narrative film is storytelling, and all storytelling is about our relationship to the larger group of humanity, whether it’s “a stranger comes to town” or “a group travels a perilous path to safety” or “a hero with a magic hammer grows up even though his dad is an overbearing god”, it’s all about family, the human family. I think the relative success and failure of either franchise is predicated on how well they satisfy the audience’s expectations of those tropes.

A key as to why I would even consider either of these films seriously – besides personal preference – is that I agree with Blake Snyder’s uncommon belief that genre is something that molds the story but is ultimately something laid on top of its frame, more a matter of set design and costuming, and that the stories that we repeat with these exterior changes are ultimately timeless and unchanging at their core. A good story is a good story is a good story, and most likely not a new one.

Let’s take a look at John Wick, a taciturn Keanu Reeves-powered gunfu extravaganza: over the four films, we see the “hero/antihero dragged back into violence and crime for the sake of revenge and eventual release from its bondage” story told in a particularly American manner: everything can be solved with the use of violence, usually perpetrated through the us of high-powered firearms.

Like the better late-period Clint Eastwood films, we see a man with a dark past who was settled down by the love of one woman, now a ghost who has just passed away. In these films, she signifies the loss of happiness and a return to the dark ways of the past. Our hero will never be truly happy, he will forever be a lost soul with a hole in his heart, but perhaps he can find a modicum of peace.

To “get out” gets reinforced as the useful plot fulcrum of Part 4, but its expression comes too late to tie the whole package together. It could have been a lever that lifted the series up to another level, but let’s admit now that no one went into the theater hoping for the best screenwriting. Ultimately, these low expectations become problematic at the end when there is a strong need to spin some gold out of all the gibberish. The very primal storylines that revenge engenders can lead to excellent and much-loved films (The Virgin Spring, Kill Bill, Revanche, Park Chan-wook ‘s Vengeance trilogy, et al.) but usually not. Most revenge films are sausage parties, football for film fans, Westerns for tech bros, and these films are firmly in that two-dimensional tradition. Not trying to be overly disparaging, I love these movies, just defining our terms, setting some expectations.

The first film – and only one to benefit from one-time co-director Donovan Leitch’s light touch (Bullet Train!) – is a classic: a retired and recently widowed assassin receives the gift of a puppy from his wife after her funeral and said cute beagle good boi is killed by a Russian punk who happens to be John’s old boss (this level of convenient coincidence is called scriptwriting magic). Enraged, Mr. Wick kills many people.

John Wick: Chapter 2 continues the necessary sophomore effort exposition by exploring the world of the assassins in an engaging way, modeled beautifully by an excellent cast inhabiting a consistently cool kind of steam punk world hidden in plain sight within ours. Although there is no real story depth or character development, it’s lots of fun like an old James Bond flick with its wealth of moneyed European locations. It even features a close knife fight on a NYC subway with Common, so there’s that.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum was the beginning of John Wick’s bowing out and involved many pointless embellishments, beginning with its title; however, it did have a stellar performance by Halle Berry and her two badass Belgian Malinois, who take center stage in some exteremely well-choreographed fight sequences, full of death-dealing double taps and those incredible leaping dogs. It was an enjoyable ride but you could feel the stretching thin of things. Still, Halle Berry.

Then with much well-deserved fan fanfare for building a successful franchise that didn’t involve a Stan Lee cameo or Paul Walker tribute, we get to part 4. Immediately we notice that, like the latest Guardians film, it is almost three hours in running length and, being someone who occasionally has shit to do, I have to ask “why?” I can’t see the profit from making films that cost twice as much and only allow half the turnover in theaters. Considering average run length was closer to 70 minutes in the 1930’s, I wonder why times have tended towards longer over the years.

I have two theories: one is that our tastes have become more sophisticated and we have the capacity and desire for longer form narratives (which would also explain the rise of streaming/binge-ing series), the other is that reality is uglier now than in the decade following the Great Depression and thus our desire to escape from it as long as possible (which would also explain the rise of streaming/binge-ing series). I don’t think longer run times are bad (I’m looking at you, Satantango), they just obviously require more content, and we know that companies can skimp on that (aka the cd effect, where all of sudden the media contains twice as much “product” but most of it is filler).

For Part 4, though, it’s just too.damn.much and the weight of endless badass bro bullet ballet becomes more than I could bear (and from its global box office to date, I’m obviously in the minority on this). It wore me down. I went with a friend who dozed off briefly and missed zero plot development. Sure, there are cool new characters (Donnie Yen! new guy with a dog! Japanese pop star!) and lots of bright and shiny locations (Tokyo at night! Paris at dawn!) but it feels predictable and perfunctory. The Old Man of the Desert is a prime example: from the great scene that is properly built up to with the equally great Cliff Curtis and some decent dialogue in Part 3 to this short, unengaging and cursory performance by an unrecognized actor with almost no lines.

The beginning of the film has a lot of momentum but that’s due to it featuring two of the more fleshed-out characters, Rina Sawayama and Hiroyuki Sanada as daughter and father. They had a story of family to work with (sure, a family of professional hoteliers and assassins, but still). Further attempts at humanising the cast continues with a number of deep and manly talks between Wick and his allies, but it’s mostly just patter. Considering director Chad Stahelski was originally Keanu’s stunt double, this film’s strength at the box office and weakness plot-wise is the non-stop barrage of bloodshed with only the barest of nods to the standard story beats.

The ending of the film also satisfies in the way it gathers up the scattered plot threads and pulls them tight on the steps of Sacré-Cœur. There is the dispensing of sudden death and iconic one-liners in the rich sunlight of Paris at dawn, plenty of scenery for Ian McShane and Alex Skarsgard to chew, and we come full circle with a fair portrayal of John’s undying love for his wife and the life they had before all this puppy-killing fueled madness began what now feels like a lifetime ago. We’re on those steps with the mortally wounded Wicker man and we both are very, very tired. We feel the end is near and it is a good feeling, just hanging out all cool and dying and stuff with Keanu Reeves. Very chill.

Perhaps now is a good time to share another opinion I may be in the minority about: Keanu Reeves is a solid actor. He works hard and plays to his strengths. For an action fan, the level of commitment to real life accuracy and the extended, well-reherased fights are a delight. Was I eagerly looking forward to hearing him utter “yeah” and did I grin like an idiot when it was the first and only syllable out of his mouth? Yeah.

The glaring weakness of JW4 (are you comfortable with me using abbreviations? I feel like we’re friends enough this far in) is precisely the strength of Guardians of the Galaxy 3. One obvious difference is that is that it took director James Gunn one less film to weave a more satisfying yarn. Even though much of what he portrays is inherited canon for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (wherein Stan Lee is this generation’s Walt Disney), he inherits a perfect representation of that “gang of dissimilar misfits bonded by a common purpose” family. The fact that they operate in a world of cape- and tights-wearing superheroes or only one of them is actually human or one is a talking raccoon and another is a sentient plant DOESN’T MATTER. This is a story about family.

In fact, Part 1 starts with the death of the one human character’s mother, while part 2 introduces us to his biological father while offering some heartfelt meditation on the value of stepparents (Vondu!). It’s in this latest chapter, though, that the heart of the story beats its strongest. And it’s about that raccoon. Between real time crises and extended flashbacks, much of the film is about that raccoon. And it’s perfect.

Rocket Raccoon is recognized in this film as “the old curmudgeon with secret past sorrows and glories” and turns the film into “dysfunctional family bonds together to save vulnerable and endangered member,” stories we’ve seen a million times but will watch a million more if told this satisfyingly. A key to this film’s success is the gamble taken with the lab animal flashbacks, dark and full of grim behavior and disturbing body horror, like some twisted Pixar film collaboration between Tim Burton and David Cronenberg (except better). Not only do we deeply empathize with the range of emotions little Rocket experiences, we are also clearly made to address animal testing (this ability to represent both worlds is a bonus of an anthropomorphic character, a dimension sometimes unrecognized or undervalued by critics). By the time the team assembles, we are fully into it. We love Rocket, we hate the bad guy, we cheer for the Guardians!

If John Wick had taken this one idea – a sympathy-generating backstory – and swapped out the painfully extraneous “make some deal with my Romani family” scene with some flashback about the troubles young John endured, or at least inserted that scene, it could have gone a long way towards overall film likability. Or a younger John and Donnie Yen… anything.

At the end of he film, I was disappointed it was over. I was good for another thirty minutes, easy; whereas, after JW4, I had already decided not to rewatch it any time soon, having already lost this chunk of time. Guardians felt like 90 minutes, mebbe 100, JW4 felt like two days. Spend accordingly.

Thank you.

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