John Wick: Chapter 2
When the first John Wick came out, it was a revelation: some of the cleanest, clearest action filmmaking ever. Not just in the impeccable choreography and the relatively staid choice of camera technique to capture it all as beautifully as possible, but the marvelous efficiency of storytelling through action. Once it got going, the action never had to stop to explain things for more than a minute or so. A whole secret society of hitmen centered on the Continental hotel spilled out without giant chunks of exposition. If I were in charge of the series, it would have continued the story around the hotel, moving to a different character’s tale each time, and maybe calling back to or even including earlier movies’ leads as supporting characters in each other’s stories.
But of course, John Wick is played by Keanu Reeves, and there’s no way the studio is going to sideline a moneymaker like him, so we’ve got John Wick: Chapter 2. It retains the stylish aesthetic of the first movie, and advances the hyperviolence — even pushing into the realm of gore — but sacrifices the techniques that really set John Wick apart from the crowd. What remains is still a good action movie, but it’s a James Bond flick plus blood splatter.
True to that Bond form, it starts off with a big set-piece, continuing from the previous film. Wick leads a one-man assault on a chop-shop to recover his car from the brother of the Russian crime boss from last time. Fifteen onscreen minutes later, the brother is the only person left alive in the place, and John returns the wreck of his car to his house in New Jersey. He re-buries his suit and weapons in the basement, intending to return to his retirement.
But of course then we wouldn’t have a movie. Soon he receives a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). John bought his retirement by giving Santino a marker. Since he came back to take down the Tarasovs, Santino wants to call it in. When John refuses, Santino blows up his house.
Winston (Ian McShane), manager at the Continental, says there’s nothing to be done. Markers must be honored, after all. So John agrees to do what Santino asks: murder his sister, Gianna, so Santino can take her place at the High Table, a sort of international crime syndicate. So John leaves his nameless dog with the Continential’s concierge (an underused Lance Reddick), heads to Rome, and re-equips himself for the mission ahead.
And this all looks great. The gear-up scene uses a series of stylish Q analogues, and the infiltration into the D’Antonio palace is very pretty. But all told it’s forty solid minutes of exposition, putting the pieces in place and explaining explaining explaining about the world rather than showing us through action what we need to know.
After Gianna is finally dead, John must escape, targeted by both her chief bodyguard (Common) and Santino’s own (Ruby Rose), since a man who had his sister killed can’t leave any loose ends. From there it’s ten minutes up and ten down, constantly dragging out story and exposition rather than getting back to the action, until the longer closing sequence.
And for all the style on display in the costume and set design, the action mostly falls short of the beautiful work from the previous movie. The first half of the closing sequence is the closest match to the full-body, wide-angle work that John Wick used to such marvelous effect, and when former-stuntman director Chad Stahelski gets it, he really gets it. Most of the other sequences are closer, bumpier work that doesn’t quite tip over into chaotic territory, but definitely moves in that direction. Other than the sprays of blood, it’s the sort of thing you can see in plenty of other action movies.
I give credit that at least each one has a clear concept. There’s the car battle, the catacombs battle, the close-in knife fight, and the “creative” battle where they pull out the goriest bits alluded to when characters tell each other the legends of the Boogeyman John Wick. The most stylish has to be the hall-of-mirrors battle, which shows off cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s technical chops, but conceptually it’s more psychological cat-and-mouse than action, and psychology is far from John Wick‘s strong suit.
Still, all this is not to say that Chapter 2 is bad per se; it’s just not as good as the first one. But then, when you set the bar so high out of the gate, it’s hard not to fall short the second time around.
Worth It: yes, if you have a strong stomach.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.