John Wick, Our 21st Century Sisyphus

(Includes spoilers for the John Wick-franchise)

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

The rule of action-movies is that immediate incentive trumps general motivation. When action star number 63 flails towards his goal in a boorish ballet of blood and bruises we, the audience, have but two things on our mind: What is the goal? What is the obstacle? The underlying philosophy of the action-man is occasionally explored but, in all honesty, irrelevant. Indiana Jones believes in the power of history; Bond in the sanctity of queen and country; Superman in truth, justice, and the American way of life; John McClain in the warm, loving embrace of his frill-haired wife; and Robin Hood in an egalitarian paradise for all. But it is not these lofty ideals, these theoretical foundations and possible endings, that we think of when the shooting starts, when body-parts begin to be lobbed off and spread out over kitchen floors like nauseating charcuteries of death. No, it is these two questions that are answered: the goal is that artifact/woman/gun/exit/McGuffin/or survival, and the obstacle is that henchman/car/monster/nazi/or killer-robot. The action star and the action-audience live in the now – for the now; for the immediate, not the end-goal, but the next goal.

Something strikingly similar to this philosophy of the urgent is Albert Camus’ philosophy of the absurd. He found all life to be inherently meaningless and pointless. We are thrown into a world of vacuums, of gaping nothingness religions and existentialists fill with lies and false hopes. We all are alike Sisyphus, the mythical man who cheated the gods and was rewarded with an eternity spent pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again. But Camus saw something new in this hulking Greek: a reason to live. Getting the boulder to the top is meaningless, as it will inevitably roll down again, but there is joy in pushing it up nonetheless. All life is meaningless, but living it is worthwhile; not because of the end-goal but because of the next goal. Believing in some grand philosophy justifying everything lacks integrity. No, staring into the vacuumed truth of the universe unflinchingly and pushing the rock anyway, that is what life ought to be.

Something that makes this philosophy especially relevant to the action genre is the overpowering presence of sequels in it. There will always be a part 2, or 3, or in the case of Fast and Furious, 11. This might make the endless saving-the-world-plots seem pointless, not unlike pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again. Why save the world when, if this movie makes enough money, which it undoubtedly will, there will just be another person to try to blow it up? Why? Because there is joy in pushing the boulder, in blowing up another nameless country whose destruction is justified through some shallow ‘because it’s the right thing to do’-message irrelevant when compared to the honest justification: ‘because it’s fun’. The action star and Camus’ absurd hero live for the same reason: the now. Fast and Furious’ Dom Toretto even echoes this philosophy with a very on-brand car metaphor he growls through gritted teeth: “I live a quarter mile at a time”.

While this overarching symptom of contemporary action-cinema is ever-present, it is not ever-embraced. Many movies will still spend minutes of valuable screentime justifying the destruction with a plot nobody cares about, minutes it could have spent pushing the boulder, shooting the bad guy, and blowing up the building. There is, however, one franchise whose commitment to absurdism is unparalleled: John Wick. While the Wick films are rich with religious imagery and mythical, occult, and biblical connotations, there is nothing but nihilist absurdism underneath all the glitter and gunfire. While, yes, in the first film John is motivated by the killing of his puppy, or rather ‘the chance to grieve unalone’ after the passing of his wife Helen, this motivation is intentionally flimsy. While a few killings on behalf of a cute dog might be somewhat justified, 439 murders are not. Some viewers may ask ‘why?’, ‘why kill a number of people equivalent to 40 soccer teams for no real reason?’ But the absurdist already has the answer. There is no reason. John exists for violence, his wife gave him brief respite from the truth of his life; like Sisyphus pushes a rock, John kills. There is a scene in John Wick 3 where this absence of meaning is addressed directly. He is asked ‘why keep going?’, he has no wife, no life, no hope, no chance of winning, no plan for the future, nothing. He answers by saying he lives ‘to remember Helen’, a ludicrous thought which, within thirty minutes of him pledging this, he rejects in order to murder his way through a few more soccer teams draped in neon light under the soulful score of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

The film that most faithfully embraces the vacuumed truth of the universe is John Wick 4; the film with the least plot and most violence. It is three glorious hours of pointless death. Near the end of the film John is forced to fight up the 220 steps to the Sacre Coeur because, well, I forgot, but like Sisyphus, he struggles up, only to be thrown down all of the 220 steps, an ocean of red welling up at the base of the stairs, John trudges up again, gun in his hand, boulder on his back. Once at the top, he duels an old friend, gains his freedom, and thus finally achieves the supposed goal he had in this movie. The stone has reached the summit, and he promptly dies from blood loss. John Wick, the man who survived being stabbed, shot, blown up, beaten, hit by cars, horses, motorcycles and buses, who was thrown off multiple ten story buildings, dies from blood loss. Why? Because there is no more rock to push. The end-goal of these films, John’s freedom from the criminal empire that once held him like a stern but loving mother holding her favorite child, was meaningless, as John perishes within thirty seconds of achieving it. The boulder noiselessly rolls down the 220 steps once more, meeting only absence at the blooded bottom. We should all be glad our boulder tumbles down with us once more. It means we get to push it a little longer. John was not fighting to win or survive, there was no world-peace or ideal society anywhere in sight, he was fighting to be fighting as we were watching to be watching. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine John happy.

Written by Arthur Mulder

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