At its core John Wick is pornography. Grade-A, uncut violence porn. Cinematic gun-fu meant to boner pop action junkies looking to get off at the theater. And that’s not a dig against the film. Many lesser films strive to achieve the kind of simple-minded, clear-eyed, uncluttered glory that defines John Wick and get caught up in unnecessary twists or lamebrained character subplots. John Wick proved the power of just shooting a shit load of bad guys in the head in the name of vengeance and it did so gleefully.
Just about anyone will tell you,
John Wick succeeds in spite of its straight-forward “squeeze bullet into enemy’s brain because they killed your puppy” narrative but while the first chapter of Wick’s saga was a violent flare up of gun-touting originality, John Wick: Chapter 2, must like its hero, is generally overkill. It expands the universe that houses Keanu Reeves’ silent but deadly Boogeyman, further exploring the underground world of the International Assassins Fraternity Wick formerly belonged to, but, like its predecessor, it fails to give us much to chew on from a narrative perspective. Which again is fine for one film, but three and a half hours of John Wick executing the kind of headshots that gamers can only dream of comes with a case of diminishing return. It’s fun for what it is but there is nothing to dwell on once the credits roll other than the inevitability of a Chapter 3.
John Wick: Chapter 2 starts with an urban legend the likes of “A rabbi and a priest walk in a bar” except in this instance it’s John Wick, three dudes and a pencil. I’ll let you guess where the pencil goes. From go, this sequel amplifies the mythology of both its central character and the world of assassins around him in goofy high fashion. Of the original directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, only Stahelski has remained on and with him stays the campy, self-aware acknowledgement that this actioner might not be smarter than its brethren but at least it’s having more fun. A montage where Wick visits a ballistic sommelier, knowledgeable librarian and tactical tailor lack the blood and guts that get such a rise from the sanguine-thirsty audiences but contains some of the most breezy fun the film’s got to its name.
Likewise, star Keanu Reeves continues to chomp the scenery as the quiet unstoppable action hero and he oozes the same chintzy bad acting charisma that made him such a joy to watch in the role previously. Pairing him against fellow assassin Cassian (Common) with a grudge against Wick allows for some hilarious low-broil interplay and some stunning fisticuffs choreography while his rivalry with Ruby Rose’s mute weapons maestro Ares fails to yield much beyond some mildly amusing sign language exchanges. As the Apex Predator of the assassin world, John Wick’s mythos precedes him but it’s nice to see him face off against some other industry legends, even if their demise is ultimately inevitable.
Unsurprisingly, the actual plot for John Wick 2 is so cursory it would fit on a folded up napkin with space for doodles: a former associate uses a blood oath to leverage Wick’s aid in killing his powerful sister. Revenge ensues. But we have words left so let’s dive in a bit.
Having heard of his recent shenanigans, a former associate Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) visits Wick to collect on a marker, the highest order of pinky promises in the assassin’s order. It took more than Babayaga;s skills alone to exit the game we learn, and in order to get out the killing machine traded an IOU with Santino to pull off “the impossible”. Wick initially refuses, Santino blows up his house. Soon after, Wick’s taken on and finished the job. Now with sister D’Antonio’s blood on his hands, Wick must escape both her loyal band of followers and the seven million dollar price tag Santino has put on his head to “tie up loose ends.”
As John Wick shoots, stabs and slaps his way out of harm’s way, the film depends almost exclusively on its action intrigue to keep us interested. There are too many headshots to count but it’s the other tricks up the sleeve that appeal this time around. The middle moments between the report of a pistol. While the ballistic poetry in motion that fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio so masterfully executed gave an almost artistic quality to the violence of the original, here it has become somewhat of a routine. Not one to let that get in the way, Dan Laustsen’s cinematography, more austere and high-brow than Jonathan Sela’s trashy, neon-colored club cinematic, gives the backdrop a different tonal feel even if it is largely the same song and dance.
But if John Wick is ballet, John Wick: Chapter 2 is largely DDR. The raw improvisational tact may have been just as planned but it largely feels replaced by over-choreographed blocking. Moments of assault originality flairs up – when the Babayaga and Cassian subtlety exchange bullets in a train station or a montage that has Wick take on a series of assassins one after another after another – but in the end, it does feel inescapably like more of the same. As the end begins to take shape, Wick does find himself in totally uncharted territory – a compelling set-up for the inevitable trilogy capper – but unfortunately we don’t get to see that fulfilled just yet, making the promise of what’s to come of more narrative interest than most anything in this chapter of his saga itself. And that’s always kind of disappointing.
CONCLUSION: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is everything fans of the first film wanted and little else. There’s more blood, more headshots, more campy Keanu Reeves stalking and killing his prey but even with Wick’s world opening up and filling out, the ultra-violent, uncluttered, wafer-thin action movie appeal has already started to wear. At least no dogs die this time round though.