Originally published on February 8, 2017. John Wick 2 is now available on HBO GO’s streaming service.
Overview: When a former ally forces John Wick to make good on an old debt, he finds himself caught in a whirlwind of repercussions with a bounty on his head. Summit Entertainment; 2017; Rated R; 122 minutes.
Working Again: Before we even get to the opening credits and title card for John Wick: Chapter 2, the film quickly dispenses with the plot that any standard action sequel would go for by wrapping up the threads from John Wick. Reclaiming the car that was stolen from him in the first film and dealing with the threat of Viggo’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare), Wick destroys any notion that we’re about to see Chapter 2 play out on the same level as before. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad show an awareness for the language action franchises are built on. They subsequently subvert those expectations by not only playfully shooting holes in those conventions, but mixing and matching familiar elements to create a new mythology based on our cultural familiarity with the action genre. To put it in the terms of the language Stahelski and Kolstad are working with, the difference between John Wick and its sequel is like going from Death Wish to Bond in terms of how much this latest chapter opens up this world. Chapter 2 isn’t just longer, bigger, and populated with more characters and better effects. It’s also a more cinematic experience that showcases the filmmakers’ desires to incorporate new semantics to the language they’re using to tell their neo-myth.
Hell, Back, and Hell Again: Having established a clear-set of rules and a glimpse at a fascinating, secret world of hitmen in the first film, Chapter 2 is free to base more of its plot within this more fantastic realm. Chapter 2 eschews the more grounded settings and villains of the first in order to play up Wick’s position as a man who exists as a plaything for the gods, a man cast down and forced to journey through several levels of hell. Like a story taken straight from classical mythology, Wick, his house burned down, is forced out of retirement (and his symbolic white shirt) to pay a blood debt to assassin royalty Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), and is sent to Rome to assassinate Santino’s sister. D’Antonio casts a devilish shadow, as a man of both immense charm and cruelty, whose feud with his sister for her inherited seat at the high-table of assassins is one of both profound jealousy and love. There lies the threat to Wick. He’s no longer dealing with impetuous, naive men of the real-world who never stood a chance against him, but power players who fancy themselves as gods with complex motives and no need for loyalty.
Amidst the ruins and statues of mythic deities, Stahelski doesn’t hesitate to position Wick in contrast to the classical art that surrounds him, Wick’s black suit standing out against the white marble, his figure frequently juxtaposed against angelic wings that are always slightly off-center behind him. He is in-part mythic protagonist, but the film makes clear that because of his need for vengeance, he cannot be a hero. Within the catacombs beneath Rome, and faced with an army of soldiers, Wick finds himself in a cool-blue Hell, a Hell that releases him into more dangerous depths. Betrayed by D’Antonio, Wick flees back to a New York made strange by the bounty on his head. His ensuing battles against a host of colorfully themed and cleverly skilled assassins force Wick to question his need for vengeance and his possible addiction to violence. While the film doesn’t quite complete the psychological examination it sets up, it does fully explore each and every consequence of his actions in ways that are violent in their precision and moving in their examination of grief.
High-Stakes Round: While John Wick topped itself too early with the Red Circle club scene, Chapter 2 tops the entirety of the first film and itself from sequence to sequence in terms of action and drama. If there was one issue with the action in the first film, it’s that it lacked variety and a genuine sense that John Wick could be harmed. This film fixes that first issue by giving Wick an armory of new weapons, provided by the video-game like customization services of hitmen hotel, The Continental. The slick looking headshots are still on display, but the film mixes up the gun combat, hand-to-hand battles, and knife fights for dynamic action sequences that run long, but are never repetitive. And as for threats, the introduction of new adversaries in the form of Common’s Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares, finally create the sense that Wick isn’t unstoppable, and that his position as the best there is just as much a result of luck as it is skill. The fight scenes are exhaustive, and while they may test the patience of some, they provide everything an action film fan could want to see within a two-hour span. The violence is hard-hitting, and brutal in a way that we rarely see in American-made action films. Simply put, John Wick: Chapter 2 offers Raid levels of action goodness.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen makes every scene a glorious spectacle of moody, evocative colors and rich details. Aided by Kevin Kavanaugh’s production design, which blends warm, old world textures and a sense of history with the cool, smooth sheen of alien modernity, Chapter 2 is one of the best looking films of its kind. This look culminates in the film’s climax in which Wick chases D’Antonio through a modern art display featuring a maze of mirrored rooms that shift between cold blues and silver, and hot reds and oranges. Wick, teetering between Heaven and Hell, and surrounded by his own reflection is once again surrounded by myth and history in this experimental re-contextualization of Rome. Reflected, John Wick becomes art, violent, stripped-down, valuable, and a necessary part of a collection that showcases the impetus behind our fascination with mythic figures.
Overall: The first film made John Wick a name to remember. John Wick: Chapter 2 makes him an action icon. John Wick’s not only back, he’s fixed as part of our pop-cultural language for the long haul.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment