Hollow Bodies

Rules and consequences

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is about bodies as violent video games are. The film opens with a splash of red over a white shirt to zoom out and frame the titular protagonist running. Carvings of tree branches spread all over his face, as if nature marked him to be out of place in the crowded streets of New York. A homeless person calls him out by name to disrupt his breather. John Wick is at once displaced and known, like players possessing a video game protagonist to enter an unfamiliar world.

It’s a violent and disorienting process. Cameras follow Wick’s fists break bones and his body ravaged by the force he exerts and forces exerted at him. One scene follows another to show him in movement, from tarnishing the quiet floors of New York’s library to dumping metal in foreign cultures. With a bounty on his head that ejects him from society, Wick turns this ejective force inward. This force targets him with violence which goes through a transformation inside him and leaves as an outward projection of violence. Through this transformation, his interior is ejected to leave a barren landscape behind.

Instead of words, Wick’s motions repeat over and over again. The moving dynamic of violence propels the film from one place to another that reduces cultures and selfhoods to dust and goes through erasure that touches everything but the dynamic itself. Cultural signifiers go through reduction which then assemble to groups of stereotypes. One can easily associate masters of samurai swords with agility, bulky brawlers with brute force, and people in bandanas with faceless menace. The same associative game can be played with nationalities denoting assortments of cultures.

Shooting video games often engage in similar homogenizations. Players move from level to level powered by domineering hegemony of violence. People and humanoid creatures are shot one after another. The color of their skin and garments stand out from the background through the lens of violence. Characters become mobs, short for mobile objects in video game development terminology. They start out as implications of hostility and become threats through movements of violence. These movements blur our vision that renders people to muddled images and handcrafted vistas to muted colors, cultural signifiers flickering between shots.

Parabellum’s myth takes Wick to a desert around mid-point of the film. To receive redemption, he must venture into the barren landscape until the point of passing out. A godlike figure offers to put a stop to the ruling class’ hunt on him after he wakes from bodily overdrive. To make an atonement, he must offer a piece of his body and swear eternal servitude. This offering follows the transactional logic of exchange and serves as a demonstration of the inward projection of this ejective force. Wick is offered his life in exchange for servitude and told to rid himself of pain and emotions that can oppose this. This ritualistic demonstration of self-emptying by cutting one’s finger aims to ensure fealty. It hinges on the belief that this ejective force is selective, that it leaves the belief in the sanctity of transactional logic intact. But this self-emptying ejects everything first, then fills itself with ejection to continue ejecting until a husk of a body is all that’s left. The logical conclusion of this force leaves Wick’s body shattered by the end of the film.

We don’t see what violence does to a body, but wear it like a suit instead

Mowing down mobs by the hundreds and thousands does nothing to the protagonist’s body in video game shooters. This body consists of abstractions of biological functions, such as health and hunger represented on a scale. Shooter protagonists start as empty vessels without interior, begging to be filled in by players. Once we do, rules constrain us. Some of these are implicit, like simulations mimicking gravity, while others are explicit, like the game over screen that stops us from playing. “Rules and consequences.” These words repeat over and over in the few conversations there are in Parabellum. The implication is that people must abide rules of violence or suffer violent consequences. These are created and perpetuated by a ruling class in Parabellum. Violence enforces and keeps these rules intact but it also acts as a renegotiating force. Rules are broken and renegotiated as cuts and bullets leave scars on Wick’s body. Crosses are heated to mark one’s skin as an obligation fulfilled and hands are pierced as responsibilities broken. The film stretches Wick’s body out like a tapestry to display the futile patterns these self-fulfilling rules embroider and the empty husk they leave behind.

Video game protagonists don’t change from start to end. They start without interior to be filled in by players and remain the same by the end. Arbitrary rules constrain them. But these remain invisible under what is lost and regained in abstractions of health points and as first person perspectives hide their bodies. We don’t see what violence does to a body, but wear it like a suit instead. We indulge in these arbitrary rules that strip away abstractions of people bit by bit to less than stereotypes. Depiction of violence falls apart to reveal an ouroboros that instead of eating its own tail, objectifies its subjects to reduce them to blurred moving images. Violence ceases to be violent to unveil the hollowness of rules that exist for their own sake.

By Zsolt David

Zsolt is a writer and critic from Hungary. You can reach him @zoltdav on Twitter.

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