Sunday, February 12, 2017

John Wick: Chapter Two

John Wick: Chapter 2 isn't just a fetishistic movie--it is a movie about respecting the honor and tradition of fetishism. Objects stand in for relationships, whether it's the house that John lived in with his wife or the marker that helped him to escape his past as a paid assassin. So the montage where John, after having his life (i.e. his house) blow up, gathers new gear for himself, inevitably climaxes with a giddy inventory of various guns. Suit, gold coins, and a whole lot of guns--these things are meaningful to the man who has no use for anything else. Guns are meat and potatoes, and knives are dessert.

I mean, look at how much this world's significantly beefed-up mythology, such as it is, depends on analog objects. Things are traditionally reliable, and reliably traditional. There's the rotary phones and clunky computers in the Continental's secretary pool. There's the conspicuously unmixed drinks that John and Cassian imbibe when  they declare a wary truce: bourbon for John, gin for Cassian. And there's that damn car from the opening scene, the one that takes a monster-truck-rally-worthy savaging--but can and therefore must be refurbished. 

I loved the sheer absurdity of this climax: the car doesn't even matter any more--it's the principle of the car's existence that matters! Yes, it has sentimental value, as is evidenced by the photo of John's late wife that he keeps in the glove compartment. But again: the thing is always the sentiment it motivates, so it's ok that John treasures it well beyond reasonable measure. This isn't a convincing sign of John's soul-sickness, though Chapter Two does bluntly conclude with a shoot-out at a museum exhibition called "Reflections of the Soul." 

The world that John represents is all surface. It's slippery by nature, but it's supposed to be attractively sturdy. There are rules, and John ultimately fails to obey them when he shoots a Continental club member in the Continental. Again, I'm not convinced that this is a sign of the soul-less nature of John's world as much as it is a sign of the filmmakers' desire to have it both ways: suits, cars, gold coins, and guns are cool but don't get too attached, or else you too will lose your soul! Never mind that the scene where John gets his gear is an unequivocally triumphal moment. Never mind that there is no normative word for John to compare his actions or values with. Never mind that character actor cameos are used to evoke without really establishing a substantial connection between John and his colleagues/employers/fellow hired hands. Just focus on the way that one fetish--the marker--is treated as a bad thing that must be destroyed while another--the house--is a pure thing whose destruction reduces a man to...acquiring more stuff and killing a bunch of disposable flunkies and capo di capi. 

I mean, what exactly do all these things stand in for? Tradition, but not a tradition that you or I know exists but rather a rigid, rule-based code of conduct that harkens back to the not-so-conflicted romanticism of Cavalleria Rusticana, if not earlier. In Rusticana, Sicilian men of honor also fight for and against hidebound traditions that dictate that men settle disputes outside the law. There's a similarly futile it's-a-fallen-world-but-it-once-was-beautiful nostalgia running through this film. In fact, if I had to give a name to Chapter Two's soul-less ethos, it would be nostalgia-punk, a paradoxically toothless form of countercultural rebellion that relies implicitly on our faith in objects to represent our relationships, our traditions, and ultimately our institutions. All of this stuff was in John Wick, but at least that film's fetish was a dog, a living thing. Remember when men were men, guns were guns, and Franco Nero's very presence was a cause for celebration? I don't either.