John Wick proves once again that style can be substantive
In 2014, John Wick combined a Taken-esque simplistic revenge tale with the unrelenting action of Korean and Indonesian action films like The Raid and doused it in stylized modernity. Directed by first-timer Chad Stahelski, who was the stunt coordinator and choreographer for dozens of action titles including multiple Keanu Reeves films like The Matrix trilogy, the film was highly regarded for its action sequences and instantly iconic central protagonist — a solemn hitman with an uncanny ability to kill. John Wick: Chapter Two continues mere hours after the first story left off, if not a day, and it maintains the same action sensibilities of the first film, including the knack for avoiding action cliches like checking bullet proof vests in the middle of gun fights and disregarding armed baddies after “offing” them with a single punch or non-fatal shot. The sequel also expands upon the original’s soft intro to an alternate world in which a secret society of assassins exists, with assassin currency and assassin leadership. This element may be exciting to some and a bit boring to others who prefer the franchise’s most prominent strength—lavishly choreographed action sequences. And still, John Wick: Chapter Two is a stellar sequel that packs a slick punch, in which carefully staged gun fights transcend violent skirmishes to become blood-splattered works of escapist art scored by cool electronic thumps.
The “boogeyman” or “Baba Yaga” is how John Wick is known to the Russian family who crossed him in the first John Wick, and Chapter Two picks up with Wick completing some unfinished business with the remaining Russian power figure. Once again, Wick stubbornly believes he’s retired from the assassin game, but then a powerful Italian assassin, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), visits Wick to cash in on a “blood oath” promised years earlier. After initially refusing, but then realizing the ludicrousness of the refusal, Wick takes the mission to Rome, where blood gets spilled, and then returns to New York, where even more blood is spilled. What starts as a simple mission twists out of control into a man-hunt, with Wick at the center, making a futile effort to kill his way out of the assassin’s world. Familiar characters from the first movie help Wick along the way, including Manhattan’s “safe house” Continental Hotel manager, Winston (Ian McShane), Wick’s helpful auto-mechanic Aurelio (John Leguizamo), and the Continental concierge Charon (Lance Reddick). New faces pop up causing all sorts of trouble, and some offer Wick aid, including Rome’s Continental Hotel manager, Julius (Franco Nero), and a target’s lethal bodyguard, Cassian (Common). Oh, and yes, John Wick 2 also features the highly anticipated reunion of Reeves’s Matrix counterpart, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the Bowery King in lower Manhattan.
Just like the first film, the sequel’s script does an excellent job of keeping Wick a critical step away from becoming reprehensible. No matter how many goons he shoots in the face (he shoots A LOT of goons in the face — John Wick 2 may now hold the record for most head shots), or how much indifference he shows toward mass loss of life, there is always a shred of justice or self-defense on his side. And those he kills are never innocent. But don’t worry — spoiler — the dog doesn’t die in this one. So if that turned you off before, rest easy. However, John Wick 2 is a lot more violent than John Wick 1. The filmmakers felt that more blood and brain splatter would be a good thing. I can’t really argue, because one of the most critical features of the franchise is attention to detail. Thus, headshots confirm a kill for the viewer. When Wick is surrounded by six goons and kills them all, he sometimes has to backtrack or reload, and each headshot emphasizes that the filmmakers give the audience credit, that we’re paying close attention. Or, perhaps Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad just like blood.
I’m gonna take this last paragraph to argue that John Wick is on the verge of becoming the best action franchise of the last decade (note: The Bourne Ultimatum was released in 2007, so we’re good). The Wick movies bring to the mainstream the type of honest action that viewers now crave. Quick cuts are a thing of the past. Complex plot twists and turns are good for some movies, but for the sake of pure action escapism, simplicity reigns. I may be reading into this a little too much, but I also noticed that the action begins in a grimy garage at the beginning of John Wick 2, then moves to an outdoor concert party, then finally to a fine art museum. Are we getting classier the deeper we get into the mayhem of the assassin’s world? After all, it is a very formalwear-driven society. But back to the museum — blood literally splatters on the white walls of the museum. I’m not saying that the filmmakers are broaching the idea that their intensely stylized action films are to be considered high brow art. But I am saying that perhaps they’re letting the juxtaposition take shape. Either way, John Wick is the new James Bond, the new Jason Bourne, and the new Liam Neeson, all rolled into one. Bless Mr. Wick’s dark unforgiving soul.
John Wick: Chapter Two opens in Bay Area theaters February 10th.