It’s actually a surprise when any Hollywood film rises to the level of ‘competent’
I watched the movie John Wick today, and it was pretty…watchable? In case you’re not familiar, this is the 2014 film where Keanu plays a widower whose wife posthumously gives him a dog that then gets killed by the son of a Russian mob boss. The wrinkle is that Keanu is a former hitman for the Russian mafia, and he goes ape shit and goes on a crusade to kill the son. It was a moderate hit, and it rejuvenated Keanu’s fading career.
I suspected that the movie would be very well-constructed, and that’s why I watched it. I liked it. I loved how the movie put in the absolute minimum amount of character work needed to make you care about this guy. All it took was 6 minutes of him mourning, and then ten minutes of him hanging out with a dog.
Throughout the movie, his grief is mostly sidelined, but they always bring it back during the quiet moments so you remember that this guy is really hurting. And there’s also the implication that by pursuing this vendetta he’s destroying the part of himself that wanted peace and was capable of feeling upset over the death of his dog.
The pacing was also really good. You know he’s a hitman, obviously, because you’re watching the movie, but he doesn’t actually hurt anyone until more than thirty minutes minutes into the film.
It’s rare to see a Hollywood movie that’s this competent. In most movies, the character stuff is really garbled. Like, there’s a character conflict, but it’s never clear how their conflict is fueling this particular adventure. Like, take Guardians of the Galaxy. Good movie. Funny movie. But what did Starlord’s abandonment issues have to do with the primary plot? In what way did they motivate him to be a hero? Did he have any reason for doing anything he did in the film?
What’s funny is that there’s nothing creative about a movie like John Wick. It feels like it was designed in a laboratory. And you’d think that Hollywood would be great at doing this, but it’s not. Their movies usually work, but they often feel too jagged and messy: the parts don’t quite fit together.
Pixar is the only outfit that consistently has its act together. Pixar movies are pretty formulaic. Each protagonist has a central conflict, and in the first twenty minutes of the movie, that conflict is dramatized in a way that builds pathos. For instance, Wall-E gives you twenty minutes of the most gut-wrenchingly lonely stuff you can imagine. In Inside Out you get twenty minutes of everything that this girl values being stripped from her. And so on.
The rest of the movie almost doesn’t matter at that point. You just concoct some plot that will allow them to get back the thing that they’re missing. For Wall-E, it’s trying to power up his friend. In Inside Out, it’s trying to recover your happy balls. The genius of these movies is that the character conflict and the plot always fits together perfectly. You completely understand why the first twenty minutes motivate the character through the rest of the film.
(The people at Pixar are geniuses, obviously, and there’s lots of other good stuff going on in their films, but when you get right down to it, the part people remember is always that first twenty minutes.)