JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2
As surprising as it may be, the past couple years have produced some of the best action sequels to date. Films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, The Raid 2, and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation won Oscars, smashed critical expectations, and raised the bars of the action set piece and stunt choreography. However, with every new high comes a new low, and with the seemingly never ending onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters, audiences have become harder to impress and as a result, films have become more desperate in their attempts to entertain.
With every climax being either a beam shooting into the sky or some other entity causing mass destruction, action and terror have largely removed themselves from reality. Nowadays, the special effect is a rare commodity, with even squibs being replaced by visual effects. This lack of a subconscious physical connection and/or resonance produces a cold feeling, which is to say, that when two cars collide there is a physical result. Metal rips against metal, and the crash is felt and the image cannot be denied. Yet when an entire city is digitally destroyed there is no physical connection, there is no truth, thus the images hold far less weight, and the thrills and excitement that an action film should elicit are absent. Enter John Wick, perhaps the greatest film assassin since The Killer's Ah Jong.
Picking up shortly where the first entry left off, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a no frills continuation and doubling down of what made its predecessor a cult hit: simplistic plotting, brilliant stunt work, and expertly choreographed action sequences. While this sounds like a by-the-numbers sequel, it is anything but. Hints of the world first dropped in John Wick are heavily expanded upon in Chapter 2, to the point where the film jumps ship and becomes not only a reflection of our violence obsessed society, but a surreal deconstruction of the action genre as well. Obviously, this has to be unpacked quite a bit.
First, the character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves): a retired master assassin that has sworn off killing for a brighter and better life, only to be dragged back into the murky criminal underworld (or as later elements suggest, simply "world"). Now, the John Wick character works because while the external conflict of the film is him enacting vengeance for his slain pup, it is the inner conflict of a man at odds with himself, forced to once again kill, that really seals the film as an underrated gem; which is the jumping point for Chapter 2. Once again thrown into a world of violence, Wick is forced to repay a blood oath - referred to as a "marker" - thus finally freeing him of his past and all the bloodshed that's come with it. Of course, if things were so simple, this would have been a much less exciting film. Yet what's brilliant about the eventual double cross by the film's antagonist, Santino (Riccardo Scarmarcio), is that it comes as no surprise.
The double cross is the predictable development that elevates the film to its perpetual climax that is essentially a solo version of The Warriors with the non-stop action and chase of Fury Road. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad know their audience, and by god do they deliver. However, while never ending action is enthralling, it is also fleeting -- which is where the brilliance of Chapter 2 enters: an endless spree of head shots that actually mean something. John Wick as a character finds redemption only by leaving violence behind. Thus, the audience cheering him on does so in accordance with one of his goals, yet not his resolution in mind. The viewer does not wish for John Wick to stop killing, but rather for him to kill those who have crossed him. We want to see John Wick succeed, yet not in the way he hopes to. Which is to say, the blood lust of the audience categorizes us with Santino -- we are antagonists that wish to see killing, and lots of it. No one wishes to see a John Wick: Chapter 3 where he sips on tea, plays with his dog, and does yard work for two hours.
This issue then of John Wick and how he wishes to progress versus how we desire him to develop is set into motion by Santino's bombing of Wick's house. By destroying his home, Wick's past - and the glimpses of humanity along with it - are erased, allowing for the clean slate to be rewritten in blood. Yet this destruction is merely an escalation of what prompted Wick's return to violence in the first film, a home invasion. In fact, much of John Wick: Chapter 2 is a retreading of its predecessor.
The central antagonists, Santino and Iosef (Alfie Allen), are both cowards who have others fight for them, and hold a connection to Wick through familial circumstances (for Santino, his sister Gianna [Claudia Gerini], and Iosef, his father Viggo [Michael Nyqvist]). The climax of each film is conducted in a musical performance/club environment, as well as several other instances - the police interaction, the repetition of, "Be seeing you," and capitalizing on a verbal gag involving a pencil - which are repeated to an almost surreal effect. The question becomes, although the events are obviously set after the first film, is Chapter 2 proposing that Wick's life is some Groundhog's Day-esque assassin's version of Hell?
Acknowledging that Wick's salvation is unreachable, the assassin becomes a fallen angel of sorts. Repeatedly making ascents and descents, from the Roman catacombs to the New York sewer system, Wick is a universal man who rises and falls through the canals of history with every violent action -- yet never far enough in either direction to truly determine his outcome. At odds with nearly character as well as his audience, the conclusion of Chapter 2 succeeds in rewriting the character's code without betraying him in the process. In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that violence is Wick's true art form by placing the conclusive battle in a museum and an exhibit which serves as a, "reflection of the soul."
A self-aware pinnacle of modern action, Chapter 2 is the Passion of Wick as well as an indictment of its audience. Men who complain about women in action films are granted a female antagonist, Ares (Ruby Rose), who is audibly mute, as well as the physical erasure of any lasting memories of Wick's wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). Desiring action and loads of it, Wick continuously suffers, but at the enjoyment of the viewer. Audiences cheer and clap when he conclusively remarks, "I'll kill them all," and this moment is perhaps the most reflective, as it is generally viewed as the rebirth of an action hero, but is not the complete relapse of a man and his morals?
Once Wick is excommunicated from the Continental and its benefits by Winston (Ian McShane), the veil is pulled. Wick is no longer a tenant of this alternate society in which police are of no purpose, subway fights are common occurrence, and every person requires a head wound to be properly put down. It's as if Wick shifts from the filmic to our reality. Characters - seemingly more artificial than the inhabitants of The Matrix - are notified of his situation via text, much like an amber alert or any viral violent crime nowadays, and mirroring the theater audience in their seats, the extras stare. The most unsettling element of Chapter 2 is this never ending gaze, much like the epilogue in Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre: a hall of judgmental eyes, wandering thought, and violent tendencies. What does it all say? What does it all mean? That is still to be determined with Chapter 3, yet with his wife's necklace in hand, and dog in tow, it can be sad that there is still humanity left in John Wick, yet is there any left in us?