John Wick: Chapter Two brilliantly one-ups the original

The modestly budgeted 2014 action flick John Wick is a lesson in single-minded myth-making. It starts out simply enough: A badass New York hitman (Keanu Reeves) goes to great lengths to avenge the murder of his puppy and get his stolen ’69 Mustang back from Russian gangsters. The momentum of his warpath sets off a chain reaction of thrilling escapist violence, producing more dead bodies than lines of dialogue for its lead actor.

Like its predecessor, the new John Wick: Chapter Two — which takes place about a week after the first movie — reinforces the myth of a human being cursed with seemingly superhuman drive, focus and killer instincts. Only this time, Wick’s allegorical journey through Dante’s Inferno comes illustrated by ancient ruins and subterranean caverns (alongside stylized, mostly dark urban landscapes).

As John Wick: Chapter Two expands its world-building to gothic levels, the script (again by Derek Kolstad) also elevates our sense of an ever-expanding surveillance state. What if every person you walked by on the street was secretly a professionally trained assassin? The homeless guy garbed in six layers of heavy clothing, who sleeps on a piece of cardboard — in this film’s paranoid vision, even he is part of a vast underground network of hitmen. As in Reeves’ career-defining 1999 film, The Matrix, the new Wick shows us an unseen and malevolent plane lurking just below our reality. (Driving home this motif, a familiar face pops up to offer some Matrix-like speechifying.)

This time, the motivation is not revenge but rather ethics. Wick wants out but is forced to honor an old blood oath to do one last job. So again we check in at the Continental Hotel of the first film — where assassins go for refuge and relaxation, and where killing is forbidden — but we also travel to another shadowy public house where everybody knows his name. As in New York, the Rome of the Wick-verse turns out to be a playground for killers, governed by the rules of the Continental, where extended bouts of gunplay happen without the intervention of the law.

One thing that makes John Wick: Chapter Two such an elegant entertainment is this deliberate mix of the real and the unreal. The settings seem familiar (and look high-budget), yet everyplace we see is controlled by a Gilliam-like office hive, a nexus where tattooed lady phone operators relay bounties via vintage typewriters and early home computers, and use modular jack plugs to connect the cell-phone-carrying international hitman community. 

But this world is more punishing than fanciful for Wick, who, despite the first-person-shooter video-game style of much action here, can — and often does — run out of ammo. And when Wick gets hurt, he slows down. The blood on his face and the bruises on his body aren’t just window dressing; as fights go on, we see him tire and become frustrated. Yes, he still draws from a superhuman well of skills, yet Reeves plays Wick as someone able to deal only with what’s in front of him at any given moment. He makes rash decisions based on survival instinct rather than calculating five steps ahead.

That said, we aren’t talking about realism when we talk about the violence in a Wick movie. Like its predecessor, this second installment is pure fantasy when Wick — whose nickname is the Boogeyman — shoots and kicks his way through dozens of assassins in a matter of minutes, executing at least a couple of WTF moves in each set piece. But those sequences work as well as they do because they eschew the disconnected quick-cut close-ups and shaky-cam grammar of the modern action blockbuster. Here, the camera work — courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen and returning director Chad Stahelski, himself a stuntman — adheres to spatial relationships. You can actually tell what the hell is going on. And as in the exemplary Mad Max: Fury Road, the action scenes utilize less CGI and more stunt work by real people.

John Wick: Chapter Two one-ups the original in almost every way while retaining the original’s scrappy spirit and surprising wit. It’s the rare sequel that expands its universe (and, naturally, its prospects for a franchise) while keeping its new thrills and twists in step with the themes that allowed so much fun the first time.  

Categories: Movies