JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2: What Action Films Should Be
John Wick: Chapter 2 is a film which, while containing the flurried action of the original, is still utterly unique and compelling.
The existence of the John Wick franchise is something akin to a miracle in today’s cinema landscape. The original film was based on an original script with first-time directors and an actor whose relevance within the modern zeitgeist was verging on non-existent. Perhaps even more amazingly, the film was made for the now-rare budget of $20 million. In many ways, it was a return to a bygone era in action films. The story was simple, the action was tight, and the line between good and bad was clearly marked. The most refreshing part of John Wick was (as far as I can tell, anyway), that the crew was not focused on building towards a sequel. The story was simple, compact, and did what it set out to do with incredible efficiency.
Practical combat is at once the most entertaining and most cost-efficient form of movie action. Thankfully, Keanu Reeves is the equivalent of a method action actor, devoting hours and hours each day to learning the craft of his action films. The behind-the-scenes footage of the Wick films is remarkable and gives a great deal of insight into the devotion that Reeves has for every picture he is a part of. Say what you will about the man as a pure performer, but he crushes it in these films as a broken man stuck in a world he would rather be rid of.
John Wick: Chapter 2 certainly has a continuation of the world in mind, but it is not to the detriment of the film as a whole, as it allows director Chad Stahelski (one-half of the directing team from the first film) to delve into a good bit of world-building which, while limited, was one of the most enjoyable parts of John Wick. While those elements don’t completely hit, the increased budget ($40 mil this time around) allows for some absolutely stunning action, that combines masterful choreography with masterful set design and cinematography. It manages, ever so slightly, to top the fantastic original.
The Reeves Effect
The original Wick film requires you to root for a man who murders dozens of people in brutal fashion for reasons that are seemingly small (in the case of the original John Wick — although, the death of a puppy is an incredibly effective way of getting the audience on your side). This works because Reeves is an inherently likable guy.
Now 53 years young, Reeves is a scruffy, handsome, lovable dude who brings a sense of genuineness to his roles and gives everything he has in the name of his craft. His tragic personal past (which I won’t go into here) and battles with depression make him a lovable guy in general, but his passion is evident in everything that he does. Acting, and especially acting in action films, seems to be a sort of cathartic release for him.
He buries himself in his work and it is impossible to not be on his side, no matter how many henchmen he lays waste to. It works if you are one who can get on board with a man going on a revenge-driven rampage for simple reasons (like me), or one who searches for a bit more motivation. Simple as it may be, it is acceptable in the original and a necessary in John Wick: Chapter 2. Admittedly, it isn’t quite as fun when Wick doesn’t want to kill his target, as happens in the first half of the film, after one of his fellow assassins presents him with a coin that requires him to commit whatever favor this assassin may choose.
In this case, that favor comes from an Italian crime lord named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who wants to have his sister killed so he can become a member of the High Table (think the anti-Justice League of crime lords). Wick is reluctant, as they have had something as close to a friendship as an assassin can have with an assassin over the years. Facing down the barrel of a gun, Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) decides to slit her wrists, ending the sad era of “John Wick at the mercy of another man”. It is no fun seeing John kill a person he doesn’t want to.
Despite the displeasure of seeing John Wick at the mercy of another man, the first half of John Wick: Chapter 2 does have a lot of fun, and builds the world in a way that the original did not. The surface of the world of The Continental was scratched in the original, but here we see the vastness of the assassin society fleshed out much further. There is a decadent Continental in Rome, (unsurprisingly run by the great Franco Nero — yes, the original Django), but we also get to have fun with a tailor that fits Wick with a bullet resistant suit, a cartographer who teaches Wick about the Roman catacombs, and a weapon “sommelier” (the always brilliant Peter Serafinowicz).
The world building can get a little cutesy at times (describing guns like wines gets old surprisingly quickly), but it adds a sense of fun that so many films of this ilk ignore. We get an extra dose of this when Common (who plays Gianna’s main bodyguard) and Keanu fight their way into The Continental, where no fighting is allowed. They sit down for a casual drink before acknowledging that the battle is over, but the war won’t be over until one of them is done for good.
The first half of the film is fun but doesn’t quite quench the thirst that we had after the original. The film works best when Wick is the aggressor. Luckily, our main protagonist, the aforementioned Santino D’Antonio, decides to put a contract on John’s head. At this point, our protagonist takes it upon himself to eliminate any and all possible threats. Wick goes from Floyd Mayweather to Mike Tyson. He is no longer a boxer, but a brawler out for blood.
The Wick Will Never Expire
The montage immediately after a contract is put out on John’s head is absolutely phenomenal, and the film doesn’t go downhill from then on. It ramps it up and ramps it up until I (and every other viewer with a pulse) was begging for a threequel. The variety and creativity of the violence in the latter half of John Wick: Chapter 2 are things that should be admired and emulated by modern action directors. More than anything, what should be admired is the clearness of the action. Besides the early sequence in the catacombs when the darkness mixed with the crabby shadows looks more like Assassin’s Creed than John Wick, this film is an exquisitely shot and choreographed piece of action goodness.
The film’s final sequence, which takes place in an exhibit that revolves around mirrors, is absolutely astounding. In a world dominated by closeups and shaky cam, John Wick’s final scene is a true work of art. The mirrors make for a wonderful trick for the eyes of the viewers, and make it incredibly satisfying when John is able to logically maneuver his way through the battle. It is no surprise that mirrors can make for a fascinating action sequence, I’m just not sure if most people thought it could come from Chad Stahelski. The film is violent and gorgeous, thought-out and logical. I’m not sure what else you can really ask for from an action film.
It is remarkable that the John Wick series exists at all. It is a member of that rare mid-budget classification that only garnered a sequel because of its success on the home video market. The sequel manages to capture all of the excitement of the original and build a world on top of it. The differentiator of the Wick series is that it builds an incredibly unique world around its perfect action.
The performances in the film are phenomenal, the world building is refreshing, and the climactic action sequence are absolutely remarkable. This is arthouse action, and it is how action should be done. Everyone should go see John Wick: Chapter 2 because it is important that we keep the mid-budget film alive, but also because it is utterly badass.
What did you think of John Wick: Chapter 2? Was it better than the original?
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