The title of this essay, “Ain’t it cool?,” is in part a reference to John Travolta‘s memorable line in the awful John Woo action film Broken Arrow (1996). That’s how Travolta’s character responds when told that he has lost his mind.
In other words, ain’t it cool [that he has lost his mind].
The phrase/question has such currency that it named an entire website devoted to movie news.
John Travolta and Cool
When I hear the phrase, I hear it the way that Travolta delivered it, with his unmistakable panache. Near the beginning of his career, Travolta starred in the disco dancing film Saturday Night Fever (1977) and was—regardless of what you think of disco and that era in general—very, very cool. At the same time he starred in that film, he had been playing the character Vinnie Barbarino in the television sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79). Barbarino is a space cadet, but very good looking and very cool.
His career soared then plummeted to the depths of Look Who’s Talking (1989) and its sequel before Travolta regained his cool when he was cast in Pulp Fiction (1994). A confessed lover of the obscure, lesser moments of film history, Pulp Fiction’s director Quentin Tarantino probably chose Travolta for this role because of Travolta’s previous career highlights.
Why discussing Travolta before John Wick is not unrelated
The more substantial reason for this essay’s title is that this is a tentative, unhelpful answer to the question what exactly the film John Wick (2014) has going for it.
In other words, John Wick is just pretty cool.
Of course, this is not really saying much, at all. Yet I’ll stick to that as a clue that can lead us to more interesting questions.
What does it mean to be cool?
American movies are to some large degree responsible for the purchase that the concept of “cool” has had over us. For White America, James Dean has always been a figure identified with what it means to be cool. Dean owed it to the roles he had the opportunities to play, his good looks, his acting abilities, and a tragic end.
In fact 1950s White America and thereafter served up numerous examples of cool, almost all in younger White men, frequently musicians and actors: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Marlin Brando, Paul Newman, etc. Each decade added its contribution, but the mold had been set.
There were at least three or four consistent elements. He should be from the wrong side of the tracks—not a blue blood. He must be of few words, but of defiant actions. His appearance must be carefully sculpted, even if it means he’s just wearing a white tshirt and a black leather jacket. He has to have either an automobile or a motorcycle, and it should be a muscle car or a Harley-Davidson.
Is gun-fu cool?
One of the unique features of John Wick is the way that the title character uses a gun. Because he’s a paid assassin, I think that we have good reason to believe that many of the jobs he has done are based in killing at a distance, as would a sniper, when the target does not even know of the imminence of the coup de grâce.
But John Wick almost never kills at a distance. What’s more, if the action of the film is to demonstrate his skill, most killings occur in near hand-to-hand combat. The target is always conscious of so being, and part of the thrill of the movie is that John Wick is seemingly unstoppable. The target sees the coup coming from a distance and none of his actions to detour it are effective.
In the course of the film Wick dispatches scores of armed ill-wishers. Most of the killing is done with the gun delivering the final blow, fired inches away from the target’s head. Before the shot is fired, Wick has already repeatedly struck and physically disabled the target. Moreover, the physical combat occurs within the space of the other’s body.
Let me say it one more time: this assassin does not kill from a distance.
The irony comes from the fact that a gun is designed for killing at a distance, yet here is it used like a knife, in the immediate conflict of two bodies.
Is the killers’ culture cool?
Yet I doubt that the salient feature of John Wick is the gun-fu. Instead, I’d argue that what thrills us about John Wick is the culture of the underworld that Wick’s known and successfully removed himself from, in order just to be pulled back in.
We are fascinated by the familiarity and gentility with which all of the figures in the Continental converse. When Wick approaches the Red Circle, it turns out that he knows the bouncer and addresses him respectfully, as one might to the bus driver or the barista with whom you’re on a first name basis.
Their business may be death, but they speak to each other like coworkers in an office, exchanging small talk like one would on any other day. But if they are coworkers in an office, then the office is a law firm and they are all very, very wealthy.
Each person dresses well. Expensive three piece suits abound. No one is poorly dressed or even casually dressed. They live in beautiful homes and enjoy all of the finest things. Even the men managing the “dinner reservations” have a professional air, contrary to the mien expected of killers’ janitors.
They have their own currency: gold coins we are encouraged to believe are real.
The Culture is Cool
Prosaic, probably, but it’s not false to say that John Wick is “cool.” Wick and all of the film’s characters bear a dignity and aura not unlike what you’d expect at one of SoHo’s high end art galleries.
Yet note the way that cool has been transformed. If cool first meant not even working class but something beneath working class and in contest with the values of middle class life, then the denizens of John Wick are not that sort of cool. They may be in conflict with those values, but they are figures of desire. We want to be cool like they are.