During the first act of John Wick: Chapter 2, I thought my opinion of the film would more or less equal that of its predecessor. I found the first film, John Wick, to be fairly limp at times, with a story and world that felt cool but also felt cold. Thankfully, once the sequel reaches its second act, where the mostly unstoppable Wick (Keanu Reeves) comes into contact with his most worthy adversary so far, Cassian (Common), I began to partially see what has made these films so beloved to so many. Irrespective of the quibbles I have with the first John Wick and its sequel, it’s heartening to see an action film receive analysis, and to see an action star as capable and affable as Keanu Reeves succeed.
The problems of John Wick: Chapter Two mirror the first, but so do its successes. The largest weapon Wick possesses isn’t his Benelli M4 Super 90 shotgun, but his actor, Reeves. Much has been written about Reeves’ place in the cultural lexicon, which is undeservedly mocked by many, and as John Wick he proves why he’s such a special action hero. John Wick is menacingly referred to in Russian and with striking on screen subtitles as “The Boogeyman” (whether it’s a nickname or codename I’m not sure). He is a principled killing machine with a flair for the theatrical. But he is also a pretty chill guy, all things considered. He likes to care for dogs, though he’s cool enough not to give them a name. He likes his guns and knows their ins and outs, but recognizes them as weapons of brutality not to be used lightly (he fetishizes gunplay, but in a classy way). He kills rampantly, but isn’t emotionless about it; he does it all to accomplish grief-stricken vengeance. Reeves is one of the only actors that can convincingly pull of this duality: we believe him as an unstoppable force of cool destruction, but also as a guy who would be nearly inconsolable over the death of his dog and destruction of his house, both of which represent his departed wife. He is both the guy you want to hang out with, and don’t want to be in a room alone with.
Jackie Chan and Uma Thurman are the only performers I can think of who pulled off something similar, though their dualities are different than Reeves’s*. I remain unconvinced, however, that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a film worthy of Reeves’ talents.
Essentially, I’m not sure that the film amounts to all that it aspires. Whether it’s a biased misreading or difference of opinion I’m not sure, but I find the world building in the Wick films to be less well done than most consider it to be. Personally, I am worn thin on elite hitman assassin narratives. Wick is certainly attempting something at least a little different within the mold, though. Rather than a lone assassin, Wick exists in a world full of them (chock full of them so much that, by the end of the film, you’ll wonder whether everyone in this world is a trained killer). The centerpiece of the plot is the The Continental, a system of hotels operating under suave definitions and near-medieval concepts of honor, where it is forbidden to fight or kill within. In one of the many coincidentally current themes one could pull from John Wick: Chapter 2, The Continental is a norm and an institution, and the film is about at what lengths it’s permissible to forgo those things when someone deems it vital.
But for me this is all a little silly and is presented with the utmost seriousness. The film has its great moments of comedy (including a hilarious pratfall in the middle of a tense fight scene and a subway shootout moment so funny my whole theater erupted with laughter), but the moments of exposition aren’t exactly presented as self-aware. It helps, though, to have an actor like Ian McShane, as one Continental’s manager, Winston, present most of the exposition. To be frank, I find the idea of a secret society (or as it seems here, multiple societies) of assassins who congregate in a hotel and use renaissance-like gold coins to buy things a kind of surface level, high-concept idea one might pitch in a freshman screenwriting course, a similar feeling I have about something like last year’s Assassin’s Creed. The defining difference between that last example and John Wick of course being that Wick is an original film, written for the screen explicitly. It also sets out to a much higher level of formalism, which it succeeds at more than not.
As such, John Wick: Chapter 2 is often a technical achievement to marvel at. Director Chad Stahelski, a former stunt coordinator on the The Matrix films and others, again delivers bracing in-camera action that harkens back to silent film as much as nineties Hong Kong actioners. (The film begins with a brief scene from a Buster Keaton silent-film projected on a skyscraper. Stahelski even said in an interview that, “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people.”) The cinematography, led by DP Dan Laustsen, is expressive with shadows, perhaps not very subtly, but expressive nonetheless. His and Stahelski’s camera is purposefully still for many of the films best fight scenes, and follow Reeves expressly, as though it were the game camera in a video game. This makes the action clear and crisp. It establishes clarity and allows for rousing stuntwork from talented people, but doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of variation. Therefore, a lot of the action scenes become rote after so long. It may seem enjoyable to see Wick remove countless henchmen of the brains they apparently weren’t using, but in certain sequences it becomes repetitive. And when the film has a chance to vary it up, it wastes it. The climactic fight with henchperson first class Ares (Ruby Rose) is filled with little substance, especially after it receives such extensive build up.
When all’s said and done, however, John Wick: Chapter 2 cannot escape the apparent requirement of all modern first sequels: explicitly setting up the third entry. It’s done well and with resonance to all that we’ve learned about Wick’s world, but it is still set-up nonetheless. Far be it for me to deride anyone for their enjoyment though. The Wick films are a little more bland than is acknowledged, but their presence is mostly welcome, nonetheless.
* Briefly: Chan’s duality consists of badass cop and lovable goof (the ultimate Drunken Master). Thurman’s is one of an unabashed assassin and an ultimate mother, able to take life as good as she gives it, basically.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is now playing wide in theaters.