Editor’s Note: John Wick opens in wide theatrical release today, February 10, 2017.
As the hope and optimism of the Obama Era gives ways to the hopelessness and pessimism of the Age of Trump, demoralizing some, but also spurring many into newfound political and social activism, escapism, regardless of shape or form, becomes all the more important, offering a bit of catharsis or emotional release when we need it most. Enter John Wick: Chapter 2, the (for once) much-anticipated sequel to 2014’s mid-budgeted action-thriller, John Wick. On the surface, John Wick looked like a throwaway, disposable effort, a starring vehicle for an actor, Keanu Reeves, presumably on the downside of his career. Instead, John Wick, directed by former stunt choreographer-turned-director Chad Stahelski with an uncredited assist by David Leitch, not only helped to revitalize Reeves’ career, it helped to reinvigorate a tired, stale genre, due to a combination of Reeves’ intensely committed performance and an emphasis of practical stunts, practical action over its digital counterpart.
While John Wick’s streamlined screenplay emphasized action over character, it still managed to hint at the much larger world or universe of the international assassins guild or organization and its strict rules of conduct.
Derek Kolstad’s screenplay for John Wick was (and remains) a model of narrative economy, doling out exposition via visual cues and propulsive action over dialogue-heavy scenes. A retired “best of the best” assassin, Reeves’ Wick spent the film’s first moments in solitude, mourning the loss of his wife with the help of her last gift to him, a dog. But when vandals broke into his austerely modernist home, leaving Wick beaten, his dog dead, and his second most prized possession, a car, gone, Wick did what any retired ex-assassin would do: He went into vengeance mode, slaughtering untold henchmen, videogame-style, who came between him and the Big Boss. By the end, Wick, beaten, bruised, and battered, fulfilled his mission, even adopting a second dog, but his car was still missing in action, a plot point John Wick: Chapter 2 rectifies in the opening scene, a set piece filmed primarily in a warehouse filled with cars and soon-to-be disposable henchmen.
Stahelski and his stunt team throw in every possible variation into the scene, pitting Wick, an immovable force, against man and machine (hint: man and machine lose), before once again working his way toward another Big Boss. That’s not the end, of course, just the conclusion of the first film’s story. Before Wick can re-bury his old life and return to his much deserved retirement, there’s another knock on the door. A one-time associate and current crime boss, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), lays claim to an old debt, a life debt/blood oath Wick owes him. When Wick tries to opt out, Santino burns down his house (Dog 2 survives, thankfully). As a member of an international guild of assassins with its own rigid, unbreakable code of conduct, Wick has no choice: Finish one more, last assignment for Santino, then return to his life of leisurely contemplation.
The coup-de-grace, a chase sequence inside a museum exhibit covered in mirrors – an homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon – will go down as a soon-to-be-classic scene.
Of course, it’s never that simple. Wick’s target, the heir to a seat at the High Table, a council of crime families, requires not only a trip to Rome, but a montage involving side trips to an armory, a tailor, and a cartographer (among others). Stahelski, his production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh, and his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, Silent Hill), exploit Rome for all of its contradictory, decadent glory, using a mix of real locations (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) and multi-colored lights to give Wick’s journey a surreal, oneiric feel. New locations, however, don’t equate into a new approach to shooting or editing the action scenes. Despite a bigger, more epic canvas, they’re just as crisp, clean, and most importantly, easy to follow in the second. We always know where Wick stands (literally, as in a geographic sense). As a stunt choreographer, it’s clear Stahelski recognizes that the best stunt work becomes meaningless if it’s been cut to shreds by an overeager, hyperactive director and his editing team. It makes every punch, kick, stab, not to mention Wick’s patented gunshot to the head of his fallen foes, feel as close to cringe-inducingly real as we’re likely to get in or out of a mainstream action film. The coup-de-grace, a chase sequence inside a museum exhibit covered in mirrors – an homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon – will go down as a soon-to-be-classic scene.
While John Wick’s streamlined screenplay emphasized action over character, plot over exposition, it still managed to hint at the much larger world or universe of the international assassins guild or organization and its strict rules of conduct. The first film introduced the Continental, a hotel/safe haven for assassins. Everyone who stepped through the doors of the hotel were automatically granted sanctuary from harm, upon penalty of excommunication and a rather large bounty on their respective heads. John Wick: Chapter 2 not only re-introduces the New York City-based Continental, it introduces a new branch or franchise in Rome. Presumably, every major city around the world contains a Continental hotel and with it, a branch of the international guild of assassins. John Wick: Chapter 2 even goes further (maybe too far), suggesting not just one guild, but several, possibly many, each defined by their own set of rules, clothing, and territories. If anything, the sub-groups or gangs, especially in New York, hint at another semi-fantastical influence: Walter Hill’s seminal classic, The Warriors.
Not surprisingly in a film with “Chapter 2” in the title, John Wick: Chapter 2 leaves a canyon-sized opening for a sequel, upping the stakes, the risks, and the dangers in a third, not-so-hypothetical entry. All of that set up, including the introduction of a new character who seems to have little or no function beyond fan service, has a cost, of course: sequelitis, the same malady that’s afflicted Marvel and DC’s respective superhero universes. The inability to tell a self-contained, one-and-done story may leave moviegoers wanting more, but it can also lead to the opposite, to feeling somewhat cheated and unsatisfied, like they just sat through a two-hour commercial for the next entry in an ongoing, open-ended series.
John Wick: Chapter 2, a (for once) much-anticipated sequel, helps to reinvigorate a tired, stale genre, due to a combination of Reeves’ intensely committed performance and an emphasis of practical stunts over its digital counterpart.