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Bad Art

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Example of good art: Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash

Yes, yes, art is in the eyes of the beholder, we need all kinds of art, what speaks to me doesn't necessarily speak to other people, and people need their voices heard.


We watched John Wick the other night. Yes, we're a bit behind on pop culture. And, don't get me wrong, 20 years ago I would have loved this movie. I loved action movies as a teen, and I still enjoy things blowing up on the screen from time to time. And I get that this is an action movie, not a high-brow drama, created for people to sit in the airconed theatre and not think for a couple of hours. I get all of this, and I have no issue with action movies or with escapism.

First of all, the writing cannot be described in any way but lazy. An assassin retired because he fell in love then his wife died? Fine, it's a bit of a trope, but fine. Some young mobster steals his car and kills the dog that was his wife's parting gift? Ok, but how come he can't take on three teenagers before digging up his "assassin chest" but after he had, he can take on 12 armed mobsters, most of them in hand-to-hand combat? Fine. A hotel that's a neutral grounds for assassins? That was actually an interesting concept. But by the time we get to the final combat scene, and it starts raining, I had to double-check this wasn't a parody. It's not. Also, John Wick is a good character until he starts speaking (which happens about half-way through the film in a lamentable scene).

Now, as I said, 20 years ago, I would have loved this film. Heck, I grew up on Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Terminator, and Top Gun. And ten years ago I would have finished watching it and said, meh, nothing new, but a fun summer movie. And it's entirely possible that I'm just too old for this shit (sorry, couldn't resist).

But from where I stand now, this movie isn't just meh; it's bad. It's dangerous because it perpetuates the idea that you can solve your personal problems by killing lots of people. It's exclusionary because it consists almost entirely of white dudes, with the only female character a ridiculous femme-fatal and the only black man the hotel concierge, I kid you not. It's narrow-minded because even the bad guys are Russian mobsters and it's about time Americans would move on from the cold war.

Charlie Kaufman said that he's been moved to tears by mainstream commercials and that it's despicable. The people behind these commercials are professionals using their craft and skills to manipulate people's emotions so that they'll buy stuff. And I argue that films like John Wick do something similar. They perpetuate the existing power structure and ideas about white masculinity just to make a buck. If art is about speaking truth to power, films like John Wick are the opposite: they lie to the disadvantaged. They lie about what success looks like, what conflict resolution looks like, what living in this world looks like. And that's bad art.


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