John Wick: Chapter 2 knows exactly what it is. If you’re expecting something philosophical, full of meaning and elegance, then half of that statement is right!
The elegance of this action packed sequel is marvelled and celebrated in its brutal ‘gun-fu’ violence. While it struggles to reach the heights of its surprisingly entertaining predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 certainly raises the bar for action films.
“Whoever comes, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all.” – John Wick
The success of John Wick shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The ideology of ‘one man against the world’ that was so prominent in the 80s and 90s with films like Commando, Die Hard, Under Siege and Rambo: First Blood, justifiably shows the subtle revival of the action genre.
But in recent years, the genre has taken a slight twist. The dependable one-liners used for comedic timing is abandoned to focus more on the gritty realism of a scene. This is where films such as The Raid, The Raid 2, the Ip Man trilogy and Oldboy has set the standard of a hardcore brutality. It’s not concerned with humour to convey a levity but to build a world where an injustice and a criminality is portrayed. When the main protagonist fights, they’re fighting for their lives. Every gasp of a breath you take is a realistic acknowledgement on the hope that the main protagonist will survive amongst the chaos and the extreme violence. Again, it’s no surprise that the Asian market has led the way and John Wick is the Western and Hollywood equivalent.
Because of the expanded nature of John Wick: Chapter 2, it’s really plays up like a choreographed third person video game. It combines the open world adventure infused with the playability of Hitman meets Streets of Rage for example. It’s in this choreography where John Wick: Chapter 2 shines.
There’s a brilliant fluidity between scenes (like a ballet dance) ensuring that you don’t take your eyes off the screen but most importantly it ensures the believability of the action. Keanu’s dedication and fighting combination of jujitsu, judo and tactical weapons training really comes to the forefront.
The one thing that can kill an action scene is when a scene contains too many edits. Often when it’s in the wrong hands, this stylised action becomes overkill and overused, disconnecting our emotional attachments to characters. We can’t champion or appreciate the technicality of its frenetic movements if the over-edit of a scene is constantly taking us out of the moment.
Thankfully John Wick does not go to that extent, choosing its movements carefully. Similar to The Raid 2, it’s choreographed fluidity helps to build tension and anticipation, like a lit fuse waiting to explode. The fight scene in Rome is a great example where John (Keanu Reeves) and Cassian (Common) eye each other at the concert party. The awkward yet casual small talk heightens their natural and combative instincts. When Cassian realises that something is wrong and John loses his secretive cover, it kick starts an incredible battle in the catacomb tunnels where the enemy is at every dark corner, operating under minimalist lighting as its backdrop.
The camera often lingers not just to execute John’s final kill but to accentuate his anger in a survival of the fittest battle. The more that come after him, the more brutal their exit becomes and you may never look at a pencil in the same way again.
“You stabbed the devil in the back. To him this isn’t vengeance, this is justice.” – Winston
John Wick: Chapter 2 asks a very important question. Is John Wick addicted to violence?
Every time an assassin or a mob boss introduces him, there’s an immediate notoriety. He is ‘the man, the myth, the legend’ – the boogeyman of the assassin world. Just the mere mention of his name sends faces into an immediate blood drain and can only react in fear. Because to mess with John Wick is like signing your own death warrant. Forget the lawyers or even health insurance – you might as well start digging your own grave. That’s the severity of it.
John Wick has an insane and relentless reputation but first and foremost, there’s always a reluctance to rejoin the assassin world. Burying his suit and armour underneath the concrete flooring of his home is a literal metaphor – one to resist a temptation with an out of sight, out of mind analogy but most importantly, it hides who he is, closing a book on the life he’s leaving behind. He’s in search of a peace, retiring to effectively be a better person and to honour his deceased wife and yet finds himself haunted and left with no choice when his old life rears its ugly head.
In the first and simplistically personal film, John’s peace is disrupted by the death of his wife and mobsters who unknowingly decided to kill his dog (a gift from his wife) and steal his car. In the sequel, the brief moment of peace is disrupted by the very thing that got him out of that world – a blood oath marker. While John Wick doesn’t say much, only communicating when he needs to, he still reacts in frustration, painfully screaming at the realisation that he has to return.
Addiction seems like a strong word because based on this evidence, his reaction is out of necessity. In order to survive another day, he has to fight, no matter what the cost. Despite being out of the game, he rarely loses his touch. Like a connoisseur, he shops for the finest tactical weapons and tailored suits. He still remembers his training and his best plan of action. But if you were to classify it as an addiction then the addiction is not for the lust of the job but for love. This tortured soul of an individual is still grieving. His melancholic sadness and loneliness is exploited by the assassin world, violently expressed through his mental conviction of justice, hence the relentlessness. So goal-orientated and conditioned for battle, John Wick lives up to his reputation and why he’s constantly feared.
As the film’s tagline points out – never stab the devil in the back which is what happens when John is double crossed and the entire assassin world is after him.
In essence the sequel loses something but gains something else in return. It loses the ridiculous and intimate story but gains an expanded world of assassins. It examines the rules and structures, the code of ethics they bind themselves to and its eventual exploitation. John Wick examines the consequences of breaking the rules and how the system can make you an enemy faster than you can imagine. With a simple contract phone call and the order logged with Commodore 64 computers, the ideology of the world suddenly being against you takes shape and nowhere is safe. In its simplistic terms, John Wick: Chapter 2 is about bringing down the archaic system – a bit like The Matrix sequels but ten times more enjoyable!
What makes John Wick: Chapter 2 worth it is amongst John’s chaotic fury, there’s an increased vulnerability in his character, correcting and surpassing the tame finale from the first film by delivering opponents that are a match to his skills. He’s not the Terminator – but he can bleed, he can get injured and every fight takes that to account. Similar to the ethos that was the concept of Bruce Lee’s final and incomplete film Game of Death, each level of John Wick’s environmental pagoda has a different challenge for him to overcome. It’s not even a stretch on the imagination when the mirror scenes in the third act are evoking the memories of Bruce Lee’s famous showdown fight from Enter the Dragon. Like a hunter stalking its prey, it plays with perception as the enemy hides in plain sight.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is that balance and struggle between living the assassins life and a normal life. As the film concludes another question is reinforced – can you really escape that world? John Wick thought he did. He had a brief moment of happiness, a glimpse and an embrace of something different. As basic as it is but having a wife and a dog is a reminder of what he’s ultimately searching for – a sense of humanity. But the assassin life is all he knows, a default reset position. Despite his hesitation and reluctance, when he’s backed into a corner and you leave him with nothing, he can only respond one way. To truly be free, the entire system must fall which sets up (hopefully) the final John Wick film.
If John Wick: Chapter 2 is anything to go by, we could have one explosive finale.