WASHINGTON, March 20, 2017 – The first “John Wick” flick saw the titular character (Keanu Reeves) traipsing around New York City looking for the low rent criminal who stole his car and then murdered the dog sent to him by his deceased wife. That was all the plot this film needed to become a surprise smash hit with audiences and critics alike. Which, at face value, seems a little odd.
John Wick—the character and the film—effectively served as a loose premise holding together harrowing and inventive action set pieces featuring our relentless, eponymous hero as he terminates a seemingly endless supply criminal henchmen. It was a slick action flick, successfully based on B-movie ideals.
In many circles, “John Wick” was a wonderfully simple film. But it did create an unexpected dilemma: Was the film popular enough to demand a sequel in the grand B-movie tradition of milking a franchise until it’s dry?
Still, it’s easy to see that director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad quietly anticipated this issue, adding just enough backstory in the first “John Wick” to build the next episode in “John Wick: Chapter 2.”
When a genre has been around long enough, it starts to develop its own internal rules for its devoted audience. That’s certainly been the case in what’s known as the “comedy of manners,” which, in literature and in film, pivots on the natural absurdity of upper class social conventions.
The first “John Wick” took this notion a step further, introducing the novel thought that its story line could be seen as the action version of a comedy of manners. Now, “Chapter 2” doubles down on that concept in the most intense possible way.
(Below: Official trailer for “John Wick: Chapter 2.”)
Watch enough action films, and you’ll begin to notice the customs and rules of action films as they evolve into an expected pattern. The audience gradually internalizes what the various archetypal characters can and can’t do within such a film. Everyone recognizes that the heroes will be superhumanly good at what they do, the diabolical villains will unleash their evil plans in a frustratingly convoluted way, and so forth.
While a given action film may be lauded for breaking these rules and customs, that won’t always guarantee their recognition as great films. That’s mainly because such films go against entrenched ideas without deconstructing how the new ideas can carry weight against what’s expected from a typical action film.
The bottom line seems to be that when it comes to genre films, there’s comfort in knowing what can and will be accepted internally in the film.
Everyone involved with the John Wick franchise understands this perfectly. With John Wick – film and character alike – the filmmakers are not trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of action film basics. In fact, they go in the opposite direction and lean heavily into the mechanics of action film tradition, gaining a certain clarity in the process. That, in turn, means they can focus more intently on their targets, something that would be tough to do if they were trying to add a new dimension to the tried-and-true action genre formula.
That’s the central strength of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” which revolves around its action set pieces in much the same way that a musical does with its song and dance numbers. The film’s creators understand that the audience is there, ready and willing to pony up to watch Keanu Reeves tackling a ridiculous number of gun-wielding foes in ever more elaborate scenarios. (An additional bonus: Laurence Fishburne also appears, together with Reeves for the first time since they appeared as central characters in the “Matrix” trilogy.)
In “Chapter 2,” nothing about John Wick feels new. Instead, everything audiences loved in the original film simply executed on a higher plane. In each of this film’s more extensive action set pieces, there’s no more complicated motivation than “John Wick needs to enact revenge” or “John Wick needs to survive this encounter.”
This directness of intent allows Stahelski to focus on the big picture without getting caught up in more confusing subplots. Each action set piece is organically focused on John Wick’s person and code and follows his movements closely. Many action films fall into the alluring trap of thinking that a complicated action sequence is at its best when it is visually interesting.
Stahelski, however, never forgets his lead character in “Chapter 2’s” action sequences. The camera remains clearly focused on Wick, almost entirely framed in a medium shot, while the action is always clear for the viewer. Aspects like the hyper stylized violence and the intricate gun play – the things people actually want out of action films – get the most attention, but it’s personalized by the direct involvement of the character.
Thus, what gets the most attention in these action set pieces is how John Wick interacts with his environment. “ John Wick: Chapter 2” could have easily fallen into the mundane, and the familiarity that it uses so well could have easily morphed into staleness. The easy and obvious solution was to put John Wick into environments that are not only visually engaging, but are also scenarios that he can work with, given his experience.
For example, it’s not enough for John Wick to work through a horde of hitmen and thugs while navigating a crowd of innocent bystanders. But what if the location of the action is a European rave? He could play a game of cat and mouse with other assassins. But let’s throw a changeup and have them moving through different rooms filled with an infinity of mirrors. “John Wick: Chapter 2” seizes upon the inherent ridiculousness of action films, and not only treats it with reverence but also incorporates it as a legitimate part of the world.
Even with Keanu Reeves playing John Wick, these intricate action set pieces would still feel somewhat hollow without something to transition between them. Indeed, at times, action films will treat plot transitions as perfunctory or merely a nuisance that gets in the way of the hero killing villains.
On the surface, “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2” can give you that same sense. The first film’s plot in particular is so bare-bones at first glance that this becomes part of its charm. Yet an interesting plot detail is tossed in, tying both films together while looking ahead to future installments.
In the first film, Wick comes by the Continental Hotel run by Winston (Ian McShane), which sets up the rules for the world of assassins and hitmen that John Wick occupies. This only briefly comes into play in the first movie, but plays a much larger role in “Chapter 2.”
The hotel never actually serves as a source of the action. But the setting itself greases the wheels for the coming conflict. Without the centrality of the hotel, both films would lack context. Instead, this locale serves as a central springboard for the action that follows.
One of the primary emotional conflicts in the John Wick franchise is dealing with loss while recognizing who and what someone truly is. Before either film took place, John Wick had abandoned his life of a hitman to be with the love of his life. To do this, however, he needed a favor to get himself out of the game.
As the first film begins, we learn that Wick has lost his wife to a terminal illness. In “Chapter 2,” after cleaning up the concluding messes of the first film, he finds himself confronting the man who granted him the favor he’d needed to leave his former life, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Since Wick is once again unattached and seemingly back in the hitman game, D’Antonio uses this occasion to collect on that earlier favor.
This begins the labyrinthine “comedy of (hitman) manners” that drives “Chapter 2.” Wick is now tasked with killing D’Antonio’s sister, who currently has a seat among a group of higher crime lords D’Antonio wants in on.
Our hitman hero proceeds with the mission, closely following the guidelines that all hired killers must abide by in this world. Everything is taken deadly seriously. For every rule broken, for every perceived slight, Wick reacts with an equally measured response like a violent version of a Victorian era disagreement that’s addressed with a strongly worded letter.
The world of John Wick is meticulously laid out. The rules are acknowledged and the players are easily identified, with hitmen at every turn waiting to hear the buzz of their burner phones that signals the next assignment they can collect on.
John Wick takes the inherent rules of the action movie genre and assigns overt meaning to them with tangible signifiers. Much like a comedy of manners, those rules are laid out conveniently by arbiters of this code, making it easy enough for the audience to follow and join John Wick as he takes his next step through the criminal underworld, almost as Dante conducts his journey down the various circles of hell.
There’s nothing particularly sophisticated or advanced in “John Wick: Chapter 2.” The current film continues the plot threads loosely established in the first film, pushing John Wick further down the rules-driven rabbit hole that is the action movie genre. However, “John Wick: Chapter 2” solidifies its central character as well as this franchise’s action film credentials.
It is, in short, a film that exists solely for moviegoers who find deep significance to off-the-wall action films. It is specifically designed to be a pay-off for fans of this genre and as such, it certainly will not disappoint.