La Grande Wick: "The Great Beauty" & "John Wick," Two Sides of the Same Coin
“The Great Beauty” and “John Wick” have become instant classics in their respective genres, and yet they’re not likely to make their way into the same dinner conversation. Which is a shame because many of the best parts of one, are mirrored by the other.
Sorrentino’s Academy Award winning film follows an aging editor Jep Gambardella. His hallmark achievement was “The Human Apparatus” a novel he wrote over 20 years ago that established his place as a member of an elite club in good standing. Throughout the film, we see the old dog going through the motions of the cultured highlife: rooftop parties, intellectual banter, art exhibits, a lifestyle he only dreamed of when he first came to Rome at the tender age of 26. It’s a vibrant adventure in color, melody, and heart from the first montage of Rome in the wee small hours of the morning, to a flock of flamingos flying off Jep’s balcony. Heck, just seeing Jep walk along a river carries a weight of operatic melancholy and beauty.
“John Wick” didn’t win an Academy award. His hallmark achievement was being a badass hitman feared by his enemies and peers alike. The movie follows an older Wick as he revisits his old stomping grounds to hunt down the punk who killed his dog (a parting gift from his late wife). His saga takes us through the most lavish underworld of hitmen imaginable, from high end hotels, and exclusive clubs, to New York’s Bethesda Fountain, and a concert gone wrong in Rome’s ‘Baths of Caracalla.’
“John Wick” is a benchmark in the action genre as a pioneer in American fight choreography. Far from the massive shoot em ups that get regurgitated every summer (you know, giant machine guns, scattered bullets, and dizzying sometimes uncomprehensive editorial cuts), Chad Stahelski (Director) handles each fight with focus and clarity. From color schemes and camera work, to song choice and pacing, to handling of MMA, so that each component is harmonized for a comprehensive and visually stunning sequence.
More than a gold coin of the action genre, “John Wick” stands on its own as a great movie in and of itself. It’s a story full of adventure and heart that mirrors many of the traits that earned “The Great Beauty” its Oscar. It’s a shame their respective audiences don’t seem to cross over while the movies share so much:
Gateway Into an Exclusive World
Jep’s friend owns the keys to all the beautiful places in Rome, while John Wick’s gold coins are a currency for the most exclusive clubs, hotels, and cleaning services in Manhattan (and the world, according to Chapter 2). Both “The Great Beauty” and “John Wick” exist in worlds of an elite stature, where few but the audience are allowed.
“Catellani? The best of course, did Catellani the tailor make your suit?” Jep notices his neighbor’s suit, and although slightly off the mark, (Rebecchi’s still the best tailor in Rome, from a certain point of view) the point still stands that Jep and his associates are well acquainted with high end fashion. John Wick is no stranger to tailored suits, only his tend to require an additional bulletproof stitching (and a coin for rush delivery).
Before young Andrea’s funeral, Jep takes Ramona shopping for appropriate mourning attire. The only customer in the well-lit high-end boutique, Ramona is exposed to many choices with subtle variances, all in black. The setup mirrors John Wick’s trip to the Sommelier, with glass shelves and brightly lit displays where he is presented with a ‘tasting’ of the finest hand guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and lest we forget, freshly stoned cutlery for desert. The wealth of choice, where no one checks the price tag is one of the more savory traits of ‘the good life’ no matter the fabric, or caliber.
John Wick exists in a world full of myths. From the boogie man tales that have accumulated through John’s legacy (including the herculean task that allowed him to leave the assassain’s life behind him), to the gold coin currency, to the history of the Continental itself and the sister companies it employs including Aurelio’s Auto Shop and a Cleaning Services van, everything has a backstory. The Great Beauty is not without its own mythology as well. A pool of elite intellectuals frequently refer to their literary predecessors, Flaubert and Pirandello among others, the briefcase full of keys, the clout behind Jep’s summer spent by the beach with Elisa that keeps him from falling in love with the women he’s around, to a strip club and the owner who goes way back with Jep.
Love: Had & Lost
Both men are highly regarded in their respective world, yet both carry a back story involving a significant other who shows them glimpses of a different life. A life possibly lacking an artistic agenda (or body count), but one with love. However, be it fate, (‘happenstance, or bad fucking luck’), both have to deal with their other half taken too soon. For Jep it was the death of Elisa De Santis, a woman he shared a summer romance with that Jep flashes back to every day. For John it was the death of his wife Helen (did we mention mythology?).
Jep returns decades later to the beach where he saw a disrobed Elisa, while John plays back a video on his phone of Helen smiling into the camera as they kiss on the beach. Both men return to their world alone, stoic, and slightly more jaded towards the life they continue to lead now that they’ve had a glimpse of the alternative.
Both enjoy their drink
Neither Jep nor John are alcoholics, but both certainly live in worlds that prescribe it. While a heavily bruised, cut, and bullet pierced John is getting stitched up in his hotel room, the doctor asks if he needs anything for the pain. John shakes a bottle of Whiskey, signifying “I’ve got that covered.” Back in Italy, Jep smiles as an old married couple share their plans of drinking a glass of wine over TV before going to bed, as their grand evening plans, when asked how he will spend his night Jep replies “I will have a lot of drinks, though not enough to be unruly, and then when you’ll be getting up, I’ll be going to sleep.” Sure, Marcus stuck to veggie smoothies but that didn’t extend his lifespan much.
Jep and John are both established men of high regard in their field yet there’s a deeper sense of unfulfillment both men are at ends with. Jep sits at his rooftop with his close friends and breaks up a squabble by reminding them “we are all on the brink of despair, all we can do is keep each other company, joke a little.” Back in Brooklyn, Marcus consoles a grieving John as he stands at his wife’s grave site “It’s days like this sprinkled among all the rest, there’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
Shots of a setting sun over the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline at night echo the sunset shots from Jep’s view of the Coliseum, and the glow of the nightlife from Rome’s rooftop parties. Long panning shots of Jep walking down a river encompasses all the beauty that’s around him, and the long lyrical shots of John working his way through the bathhouse on his way to Josef work in a similar establishing vein, albeit one a little more bullet ridden. The colorful and melodic shots in both films warm up the audience to the alluring beauty of their worlds. And we want to be a part of them.
The juxtaposition of “The Great Beauty” soundtrack from soft and religious to EDM is condensed and exemplified through the different floors of The Red Circle, from the smooth and sensual bathhouse basement to the hardcore house music on the main dance floor. The stylized color schemes work seamlessly with the score, making the worlds all the more alluring. But the biggest takeaway for these movies isn’t how they look on the big screen, but how they enhance the way we see the real world.
Chad Stahleski, (Director of John Wick) says “We want to show you cool and intricate details. What are those little details in everyday life? Hopefully- we make people look at [the routine] a little differently now.” “The Great Beauty” works in the same vein. The soundtrack stays with you. You don't have to be in Rome for 'My Hearts In the Highlands' to underscore your routine the way it does Jep’s, and you don't have to be in a room full of the Italian elite to dance when 'Far L'amore' comes on. (Nor do you have to be an elite assassin to rock out to Marylin Manson's 'Killing Strangers').
At its core both are films of men fighting their own mortality in the face of spent youth and loved ones lost. Jep combats it with the start of a 2nd book and John, well, he literally combats it. John knows that he can’t bring his wife back, but he’s accepted avenging his wife’s parting gift as his next hurdle. It’s the only thing he knows how to do, and until it kills him or he succeeds, it’s what’s giving him a purpose.
Jep goes through life no longer amused by the spoils awarded him, what good are these distractions if he keeps harking back to one summer romance from his youth? What good is John’s ability to defeat any man that gets in his way if he can’t protect his wife from getting sick?
So, sure, one of these movies won best foreign film at the Oscars, is a pretty direct descendent and expansion on Fellini’s legacy, deals with the intellectual existential angst of the elite all the while juxtaposing the hedonistic beauty of nightlife vice with the humble perspective of those devoted to a higher being.
And the other is a badass action movie… but also a symphony of intricate color schemes and melodies with clear and compelling fight sequences following a man’s descent back to a world he tried so hard to leave behind. Ya know, two sides of the same coin.
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