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From John Wayne To John Wick, American Cinema Loves The Noble Outlaw

Moviegoers consistently appreciate characters like John Wick, the noble outlaw, the cowboy in a bulletproof Armani suit.

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It’s safe to say “John Wick: Chapter 4” avoided the movie theater malaise these past few weeks. During its opening weekend, the fourth installment in the silent-but-deadly hitman franchise set a record by earning just under $74 million. It continued to rake in cash by making $245 million worldwide in its first 10 days.

Much like the smash hit of summer 2022, “Top Gun: Maverick,” the latest “John Wick” movie is an action-packed, winner-takes-all story that doesn’t attempt to evangelize on behalf of contemporary political entities or push ideological goals. They’re the increasingly rare type of movie that exists simply to provide entertainment for entertainment’s sake. But this doesn’t mean they’re void of greater substance.

For instance, both films feature male protagonists who are best characterized by their generally stoic demeanors and resentment of rigid, out-of-touch authority figures and institutions. This archetype is well known to moviegoers, and American cinema is replete with these types of characters: Han Solo, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, John McClane, and Martin Riggs are just a few who come to mind. 

The medium would simply not be the same without characters of this nature.

And, to that point, many of the stories that most effectively depict Americanism and our traditional understanding of the founding ethos on-screen are dependent on this archetype — the “noble outlaw.” The various characters portrayed by John Wayne in the Westerns of the mid-to-late-20th century provide us with the clearest example of this.

The Noble Outlaw

The man who stands with one foot in and one foot outside of society; the lone dissenter begrudgingly turned righteous vindicator; the, well, maverick whose heroism on the silver screen is spurred by righteous indignation is a distinctly American symbol.

These characters are often depicted as cowboys in search of vengeance, vagabond veterans of the U.S. Civil War, or generally just rugged men spiritually grizzled by the constant struggle to stay alive when neither freedom nor comfort could be guaranteed.

Tending to be individualistic, this character prefers or requires a life of solitude and engages with the larger society on a case-by-case basis to either reaffirm or challenge his ideals. He exists outside of man’s law — by the nature of being an outsider — but has a deep appreciation for order, as it facilitates the conditions in which he can pursue his freedom and the natural role that objective morality plays in preserving it. At the same time, he is unafraid to resort to violence to protect or establish his way of life, ideals, and traditions. This is perfectly in line with the anomalous nature of the American founding, accurately depicts the enlightened scalawags who participated in it, and adheres to our traditional understanding of the country’s founding ethos. As the quote attributed to legendary director John Ford goes, “America was born on the frontier.”

The closest cultural parallels to this archetype are European cinema’s depiction of the refined individuals who embody the cultural and aesthetic traditions of their people and Asian cinema’s depiction of warriors who master self-discipline while adhering to strict codes of conduct in the pursuit of lineal honor. Essentially, knights and samurai are the cowboys of European and Asian cinema.

Wayne’s World

In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a rugged and self-reliant rancher who lives beyond the town of Shinbone. Doniphon embodies the contradictions and complexities of American history and identity as he is a successful white landowner opposed to racial discrimination, despite certainly being in a position to benefit from it, and readily uses lethal violence to preserve law and order and to rid the community he cares about of predatory ne’er-do-wells.

In “True Grit,” Wayne’s portrayal of Rooster Cogburn emphasizes the character’s rough-and-tumble approach to out-of-the-box problem-solving and his chronically bent elbow. Cogburn, a veteran of the Confederacy, possesses a strong moral compass and unwavering commitment to finish what he’s started, but he often struggles with his personal demons. And his commitment to seeing justice done, no matter what, often puts him at odds with the Texas Rangers.

Similar observations can be made about Wayne as Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” — a hardened frontiersman haunted by his past who takes on a years-long quest in the wilderness to free his kidnapped niece from the Comanche — and Hondo Lane in “Hondo,” a half-Apache man torn between his admiration for Western civilization and his love for living among the wilderness.

In these roles, Wayne depicts the spirit of Americanism, warts and all. In doing so, he animates the vast contradictions of human nature. The characters he portrays contain multitudes as they often walk in two contradictory worlds attempting to reconcile them — much like John Wick.

From Wayne To Wick

In 2014’s “John Wick,” the first installment in the franchise, we are introduced to the titular character as he stumbles out of a black SUV, wounded and covered in blood. Wick, we soon learn, is a widower — in flashbacks, we see his wife passing away from an inoperable ailment — casting a long shadow over the rest of the franchise that helps to establish him as a somber and stoic man of many deeds and few words. The film’s plot is set in motion when the puppy his wife arranged for him to receive as a postmortem gift is killed by Russian gangsters. Wick subsequently reacquaints himself with the sophisticated underground network of assassins he had previously retired from and, with the help of his hitman friends, exacts vengeance.

Wick’s motivation in this first film is to reaffirm the love and commitment he has for his deceased wife. Despite having previously set aside his pugnacious profession to live a tranquil domestic life, he accomplishes this through violent and extralegal means. Then again, his nemesis is a vast criminal syndicate that is outside the reach of legal institutions.

The film’s cast of characters exists in a brutal state of nature beyond the scope of social norms, much like the situations in which Wayne’s various characters found themselves. They are outside a formal system of law where the governing authority is either the strongest or most resourceful man.  

The rest of the franchise focuses more on the enigmatic underworld of assassins Wick is dragged back into, along with its loathsome and feared governing entity, the “High Table.” From the second movie onward, Wick struggles with and resents his return to the incredibly violent lifestyle he previously left behind, but he doesn’t have a choice: He must kill in order to stay alive, he must murder to be free, to topple the corrupt regime he must do unspeakable things no one else could do.

John Wick’s story is predominantly about him being persecuted by corrupt individuals and institutions while trying not to die so the memory of his loved ones may live on. Throughout it, his freedom and life are at stake, but they are secondary to the larger goals of toppling the corrupt authority terrorizing him and his associates.

Wick and the various characters portrayed by Wayne generally exist outside of an established social order or, at the least, are perpetually at odds with it as they struggle to preserve specific principles and create societal conditions in which future generations might thrive. The noble outlaw might embrace brutality, but this is an attribute meant to serve a greater purpose so he may assist in society’s recalibration and proper re-ordering.

Tying It Together

Not to garner sympathy for Hollywood (it’s the last place in the country that needs it), but the movie industry is hurting. And it’s not because big studios alienate audiences by taking artistic risks, or because of the looming specter of Covid-19. People are tired of paying exorbitant prices for a constant stream of socially conscious shlock when they can watch better content on their phones at home.

But when films like “John Wick: Chapter 4” or “Top Gun: Maverick” are released, people flock to them. Moviegoers resonate with characters of the noble outlaw archetype and greatly enjoy the stories featuring them; the box office numbers speak for themselves. Just compare them to any of the recent superhero movie flops. Films of this nature don’t seem to suffer from the same audience burnout. 

Undoubtedly, the “John Wick” franchise’s approach to the noble outlaw differs from John Wayne’s, as the latter was far more explicitly aligned with the nation’s founding ethos. 

But the fact remains that this is a unique symbol that is, at its core, attuned to American cultural identity.

John Wick is a cowboy, albeit in a bulletproof Armani suit.


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