Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.
The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
In the title role of John Wick, Keanu Reeves plays the sort of cool, silent assassin who has only a few dozen lines. He’s a slick, lethal hit man; why should he talk much? And yet you wish he’d shut up already. This movie needs only a simple setup to function, but there’s John Wick, handcuffed to a chair and telling the bad guys why he’s doing what he’s doing. We get it, man. Now why can’t you be as terse as Ryan Gosling in Drive?
The simple setup goes like this: Wick’s been out of the assassin game for five years, living a normal life for a while. His wife dies of illness, leaving behind a surprise puppy to console her husband. After the hothead son (Alfie Allen of Game of Thrones) of a Russian gangster (Michael Nyqvist) steals Wick’s car and kills the dog, merciless revenge is guaranteed.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.