JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 Review
Director: Chad Stahelski
“When you ask [if it’s] right for violence to be fun, you must realize that people aren’t used to challenging whether certain types of violence are fun. You see it when your Western hero finally shoots all the villains. Heroic violence, in the Hollywood sense, is a great deal like the motivational researcher’s problem in selling candy. The problem with candy is not to convince people that it’s good candy, but to free them from the guilt of eating it. We have seen so many times that the body of a film serves merely as an excuse for motivating a final blood-crazed slaughter by the hero of his enemies, and at the same time to relieve the audience’s guilt of enjoying this mayhem.” — Stanley Kubrick, 1972.
The above is an excerpt from a ROLLING STONE interview in which Kubrick sat down to address the ultraviolence, if you will, of his masterpiece, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It’s a great read, and he got a lot of things right, but that was 45 years ago. As frighteningly prescient and ahead of the curve as Kubrick was, there is one thing he didn’t account for — the audience doesn’t give a shit.
“Action,” whatever that may mean from an ontological or even just a philosophical standpoint, is irrelevant. Action, is, at the heart of it all, really a celebration of violence. Action takes what would be the most horribly downbeat and terrifying series of news headlines imaginable and delivers it at 800 rounds per minute, punctuated by explosions. Action takes the fears of a world gone mad and ropes them into a gleeful, orgiastic, aesthetically-pleasing catharsis. It isn’t an exoneration so much as it is an exaltation. It’s spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
Pictured: A man who clearly doesn’t give a shit
2014’s JOHN WICK knew this and ran with it. Three home invaders beat our titular protagonist, played by Keanu Reeves in a career-defining comeback, trash his place, steal his pristine ‘69 Mustang and, worst of all… kill his puppy — a puppy that his recently deceased wife left him as a gift of remembrance, no less. And all of this because he punked one of them at a gas station. This of course leads the eponymous hero on a merciless, balls-out quest for revenge. It’s a plot so dumb it could only be an action flick, and when you take a step back and examine it, his justification for killing 84 men is flimsy at best…but you don’t kill a puppy, goddamnit!
In fact, dogs are such a big deal in film that there are two tropes directly tied to them: “petting the dog,” whereby a character proves him or herself as one of the good guys, and “kicking the dog,” the ultimate moral transgression, guaranteeing the perpetrator a hard and ugly death. Kicking the dog, or killing it, rather, is an act so heinous that, no matter what else happens in the film, we are on board with whatever the protagonist has to do in order to see himself to the grisly, blood-soaked finale. Kicking the dog is one of the easiest ways to inspire empathy in the viewer, along with, say, a loved one dying unexpectedly. It’s a cheap move, but an effective one — so much so that an entire viewer base can be duped into sympathizing with an unflinching, remorseless mass murderer, having been convinced that the life of one cute puppy is worth more than the lives of nearly 100 (mostly) innocent men. Well, I am overjoyed to tell you that the preposterous and completely unjustified (right, right, the puppy) carnage of the first film doesn’t only carry over into JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, it gets cranked up to 11 and breaks the knob off! Here there is no “final blood-crazed slaughter,” the whole damn movie is one!
Pictured: A dog no one should kick. Ever
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is the rare sequel that not only lives up to the hype of the original, but improves upon what made it work and surpasses it. It isn’t just more action-packed, it’s tighter, faster-paced, and more aggressive. It’s also smarter, more fleshed out, and pretty damn funny too. All of the world-building and lore that lent itself so well to the air of intrigue in the first film is continued, with the introduction of several new elements that not only expand upon its world of rogues and assassins, but give it greater depth as well. Everything that may have been glossed over in the first film is covered with a welcome attention to detail, as John gives us a tour of the various outfitters who assist him in his mission.
Much of the action of CHAPTER 2 plays out like a John Woo-helmed 007 (Daniel Craig, that is) that got ported over from a mid-2000s first-person shooter. (‘Member how awesome CALL OF DUTY 4 was? I ‘member.) Fight scenes are brutal and relentless, the sheer bravura of which is stunning. Full stop. Wick moves from one set to the next, mowing down wave after wave of nameless henchmen, all while taking cover, reloading, swapping guns, and taking ammo off dead guys in real time. Failing an opportunity to double-tap someone, Wick slams goons and wrenches them around by their limbs like extremely unfortunate ragdolls with a mix of judo and jiu jitsu that is as astounding as it is painful to watch. The brutality of his fighting style isn’t wanton, either. There is an appreciable logic to Wick’s moves, and he executes them with the precision you would expect of one of the world’s foremost assassins. The attempt at realism here is commendable and actually pretty amazing given how absurd the scenarios are, and it goes a long way towards preventing the prolonged firefights from feeling repetitive. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the hand-to-hand combat in CHAPTER 2 is on par with the likes of THE RAID or any Tony Jaa film, but Mr. Wick would certainly find himself a rightful seat in Valhalla after this foray.
Oh yeah, Ruby Rose is in yet another action flick
All other praise aside, what really leaps out is how pretty this movie is. Apart from a few key scenes, the first film was a largely drab and somber affair, dominated by blacks and grays that leant themselves to an overall grim, noirish tone. While it had an undeniably slick aesthetic, it got a bit bogged down by this towards the end. CHAPTER 2 immediately nips that in the bud, opening on a street bike tearing through neon-lit city streets with John’s Mach 1 in close pursuit (Hats off to the clever Buster Keaton projection that the film starts on.) The streets are wet, the bike, car, and seemingly every building all appear to be freshly waxed and shined, and light plays off each surface in a way that makes it look like they’re careening around inside a gigantic pinball machine. It’s THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT a la Nicolas Winding-Refn, and it is so cool. What is even cooler (you know, other than all the gunkata and judo throws) is that a great deal of the film takes place in a museum, which, beyond looking like something straight out of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, features one of the most gorgeous and inventive set pieces I have ever seen — in an action film, or otherwise. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say the scene in question raises the bar for tense, creative shootouts.
For my money, Keanu Reeves is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and I am happy that he has not only been able to remain relevant, but has managed to create another iconic character in the midst of today’s endless sequels, reboots and overblown CGI-schlockfests. Say what you will of the man’s ability to deliver lines, but Reeves’s dedication to the craft cannot be denied. Everything Keanu does in CHAPTER 2 (any movie, for that matter) — every hip toss, every gun trick — he actually took the time to learn; all of the extended takes of him driving like a bat out of hell or manhandling hapless bad guys are him and him alone, and my god can he hang at 52 years old! There are no half-measures here. He brings a level of physicality to the role that is almost unheard of these days, one which will cement JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 as a bona fide action classic in the years to come, and its star in the pantheon of action greats. Respect.