Milo Garner reviews Chad Stahelski’s John Wick sequel.
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a reference to the great silent comic Buster Keaton. This, rather than being a throwaway gag, frames the creed of the John Wick franchise – films defined by their physicality. Exploiting this physicality as Keaton did, director Chad Stahelski brings a weighty punch to the action genre; replacing nigh-incomprehensible quick-cut fight sequences common in many blockbusters with a sort of rhythmic and expertly choreographed dance of death. This was much the intent in the first film, but there I felt the mark was missed – this second film rectifies the errors in the first, and then some.
John Wick most clearly distinguishes itself from the typical action flick in contradicting many of the tropes considered inherent it, particularly in regard to weapons. Typically ammunition is not an issue for the average action hero (lest the plot demand it), but in John Wick 2 our eponymous hero is often limited by the amount of ammo he brings, often switching weapons with his fallen foes.
But it isn’t simply a question of how many bullets he has, but how he uses them. The gunplay here, though not strictly speaking realistic does give a sense of authenticity – the way he holds his weapons, his use of the Mozambique Drill, and the manual reloading that serves as punctuation to the action at large. This is especially clear in one scene where he uses a Benelli M4 shotgun (the film is very specific) and has to reload one shell at a time; instead of cutting this ‘dead time’ it rather serves to further the tension of the scene.
Another trope John Wick 2 deals with is the issue of being shot – in many action films the hero is exceptionally lucky to never be hit, at worst only receiving light grazes. Here Wick is literally suited with a bulletproof three-piece – sure it’s ludicrous, but it makes a lot more sense than avoiding every shot (and even then, he gets his fair share of wounds).
This is about as far as the theoretical basis for John Wick 2 goes, however, and beyond this does play out a lot like other films do in its genre – it stands out as it does this very well. In a sort of meta play on the plot of the first film, much the same set-up occurs – Wick has retired, then the bad men destroy something precious of his and he’s forced back into the game. In this case he comes up against villainous Italian gangster Santino D’Antonio, who, naturally, tries to have Wick killed after betraying him. The usual.
The reason this doesn’t come up as a significant negative is that John Wick doesn’t take itself too seriously – there might not be many actual jokes in the film, but it’s clearly playing along with the audience. When we’re laughing at the sheer ridiculousness on screen, it’s not at John Wick, but with it. An example of this would be when Wick comes up against his rival, Cassius, in a New York train station. They walk parallel to each other holding their silenced handguns to their chest and take pot-shots at one another across a crowded hallway without anyone noticing them – there’s no way that was intended to be taken seriously.
This is also a reason why Keanu Reeves is perfect for the role – his acting might be technically lacking in moments, but only he could deliver the lines he has in just that right way, forcing a collective grin on everyone in the cinema.
This narrative, which progresses much as one might expect, functions well as a foundation for the film’s actual strengths – its action and style. Both these aspects are significantly improved from the first film in the franchise, allowing John Wick to reach the kind of heights such an absurdly simple concept surely should. In terms of action: it’s bigger, it’s louder, and it’s far more exciting.
Perhaps owing to a budget two times larger after the first film’s success, Stahelski has doubled down on everything, and it pays off massively (especially in regards to my personal peeve, that the gun sound effects were a little limp in part one). The set pieces are extensive, well-paced, and constantly invigorating. The only real issue left with the bloodshed in John Wick 2 is the literal lack of it – the film is incredibly violent, yes, but only to the limits of a 15 BBFC rating (there was even some minor controversy with 13 seconds being cut to fulfil that rating). The blood seen after most of the 128 deaths (really) in the film is a pretty obvious CGI spray; a shame given such a film as this could really go all out on the gore.
In terms of style, John Wick 2 is best described as neon. Bright fluorescent lights, of many colours, mark the typical mise en scène for most of the film, with this best shown in one of its final sequences taking place in a hall of mirrors. Sure, it doesn’t have anything on Welles, but the cool factor is massive. And that’s really the crux of John Wick – the cool factor.
Sure the blank characters and so-so plotting can be criticised – but look! He just killed that dude with a pencil! And yeah some of dialogue is bad even for the cheesy style they were going for, but wait… is that a thudding electro remix of Vivaldi in the soundtrack? Oh boy it is. This is the general pattern throughout, and if nothing else, it is a lot of fun. Where the first film stuck a lot more to its genre-guns, this time it goes further out there (brushing with the absurd, in honesty) and for the better.
Despite its shortcomings and flaws (of which there are far more than mentioned here, such as a meeting with Laurence Fishburne which stops the film dead), John Wick 2 is the kind of film that knows what it is and succeeds at most of its aims. It is the perfect sequel in that it actually improves on the first film in pretty much every aspect. That it is consciously a sequel does leave some problems, like some narrative strands left unsolved so they can presumably reappear in another, later sequel, or a surprisingly long tail off into the next film before the credits. But if the franchise is going to deliver like this film has, I can hardly complain.
Featured image: Memeburn