John Wick, like the Taken franchise, sought to exhume the “Righteous One Man Army” trope from its early 1990’s era tomb. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when he’s fighting for his family/country/adorable dead puppy. It makes for a satisfying story – a man slightly past his prime, forced into action by circumstances beyond his control, must fight the good fight alone.
Unfortunately, the newness never lasts. Like the original Death Wish, the first installments of both Taken and John Wick were, if not entirely groundbreaking, at least successful in adding something to a category of film one might generously call “long in the tooth”. Sadly, when a genre film becomes an unexpected hit, the tendency is to give into the hype and milk it for all it’s worth. It usually doesn’t take long for a once great idea to become an embarrassing act of self-parody.
For those who missed it, John Wick concerned a retired hit man whose recently deceased wife left him a puppy by which to remember her. Then a gang of Russian mobsters break into his home, beat him half to death, kill the dog and steal his car. And for the next 80-odd minutes, John Wick lays waste to all things Russian, brutally murdering damn near everyone in the film With an accent. Payback is delivered with interest, but he never gets his car back.
John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place immediately after the first film, and our hero is already looking to correct this. He tracks the vintage Mustang to yet another Russian mob boss. Wick murders all the henchmen and makes peace with the Boss, officially ending the original movie’s story arc. It makes for an explosive opening, and also results in the complete destruction of the Mustang. You may find that counterproductive, but for Wick, it’s a simple matter of ethics.
So now we know two things:
- The stylized violence of the last film is back, and turned up to eleven.
- John Wick remains a man of principle; perfectly willing to destroy his own property to get it back.
To that first point, the John Wick franchise has now thoroughly committed to being a cartoon. Wick’s world is a video game played in God mode. Yes, he bleeds, but he never seems to truly feel pain. The question isn’t whether or not he will win, or even why he’s fighting. It’s “what was the body count?”.
That’s certainly not a crime, and it IS evocative of the genre. But the exorbitant level of violence in the first film was somewhat offset by the tenuous moral justification we summoned for the main character (they killed the fucking dog, man!).
This time, the attempt to claim the high ground feels far less successful.
But let’s get back to those famous John Wick “principles”. They served him well in the first film, and formed the basis for his motivation. But now, that quality has been replaced with a far less sympathetic strain of adolescent stubbornness.
Wick is barely home long enough to bury his guns in the basement before he’s visited by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a crime lord to whom he owes a mutually agreed-upon blood oath. It’s time to pay up.
You see, the Organization to which they belong observes a strict, if somewhat archaic set of what you might call principles.
In return for observing them, the Organization provides Members with a dazzling arsenal of weapons, custom tailored murder suits, and lavish hotel suites at any of their many fabulous worldwide locations. The five-star kitchen is open 24/7, everything is paid for with gold doubloons (the exchange rate for which is extremely unclear), and everybody gets to work for Ian McShane, which would obviously be awesome.
By the way, those principles are:
- Don’t kill anyone while visiting any of our many fabulous worldwide locations.
- Always honor a blood oath. And we do mean always.
Guess which one Wick breaks, right off the bat to open the film?
His principles should demand he accept, but he does not. The consequences are dire, yet end up changing nothing about the outcome of the story! He could have just said yes, saved himself a lot of pointless trouble, and the film would have ended the same way. There was no reason to waste all that time with it (McShane himself even points this out), except to set up a slick James Bond style “quartermaster” sequence where Wick picks up some cool new gear and is fitted for one of those aforementioned murder-suits.
Luckily, this nonsense is mostly offset by the steady stream of breathtaking fight scenes. No, I did not coin the term “bullet ballet”, but I can’t think of any other way to describe what goes on when John Wick starts killing people. It’s legitimately astonishing – the kind of thing that only happens in a first person shooter, when you’ve been playing so long that you can clear out a map in half the normal time, using methods the designers never imagined.
Speaking of mad skills, Wick also finds himself at odds with an old friend and colleague named Cassian (played by Common the Rapper). He, like his counterpart, boasts secret ninja training and is also somehow impervious to physical pain and long term injury. I’m not sure how many times in one week a normal human can shake off being beaten, shot, stabbed, and then run down by a moving vehicle – but in this reality, the answer is somewhere between “thirteen” and “infinity”.
Cassian (along with at least one other rival) is clearly intended to be a recurring character in what is no doubt meant to be an ongoing series (dare I say shared universe) of films. Is this a good thing? I’m not sure. The primary plot is actually not uninteresting; it reveals a bit about the inner workings of the Organization – including a rather obvious weakness in their corporate chain of succession. I’m a little tired of the whole “Secret Global Shadow Organization” trope (it is pushed well past any logical limit here), but I wouldn’t mind seeing more of what’s under the hood in John Wick’s world.
What I probably can’t get used to is the way so many of the fight scenes take place in public – in broad daylight – with crowds of extras milling around in the background as though nothing is happening. Or imagine a train filled with people pulling into a station, but nobody gets off except the two guys who are required to fight on the empty platform. There are so many scenes involving Wick stumbling around a bus terminal in a tattered, six thousand dollar suit, covered with blood and brandishing a hand cannon – while nobody notices.
All you need to do is sneeze in public and count how many strangers have the presence of mind to say “bless you” to see how silly this is.
But it’s not nearly as silly as the scene where Wick has a full on stab-fight on a moving train, in full view of the passengers. The people in the background absently gape, like a bunch of drunks watching an ant drag a potato chip across a hot sidewalk, instead of like terrified civilians watching a pair of super-elite assassins work each other over with combat knives.
A lot of people won’t care, and I do realize the job of an extra is not to stand out. But I found the general lack of awareness from background characters more distracting than it should have been. Not even Grand Theft Auto lets you viciously stab people in public without any consequences. Believe me, I’ve tried.
So basically, John Wick: Chapter 2 is everything you liked about the first one, without all the heart. It’s lots of visceral fun, and the world it creates is immersive and thrilling. But it feels less like a solid story than it does a really long video game cutscene between Chapter 1 and Chapter 3.
Too bad, because a choppy narrative, plus an over-reliance on style over substance make it hard to get excited about that.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."