“John Wick: Chapter Two”
When you have killed as many men as John Wick has, damnation is basically inevitable. What was the commandment? “Thou shalt not kill?” Based on the this and the first film, Wick is guilty of this sin thousandfold, and there are even the stories of his work before the events of the first film, such as the infamous tale of how he killed three men in a bar with “a f*cking pencil.” He is the one you send to kill the Boogeyman, so an eternity in Hell really shouldn’t be an issue for a man like that, yet when asked, “Do you fear damnation, John?,” he replies, “Yes.” And herein lies the bleak truth of these films; the dark, cold center that repels the high-frequency shoot-em-up beauty on the surface. When one has become “the Devil,” what has he left to fear?
John Wick: Chapter 2, the sequel to the sleeper hit that is already more iconic than most action films of the last decade, is spellbinding. It is a merciless ballet of blood and bullets, with red-splattered walls and grime-ridden suits. Coming off the heels of one of the most satisfying action films of the 21st Century, there was a lot riding on this second chapter into the rich world of John Wick, and it delivers, 150 percent.
The John Wick films are more than just bloody, action packed blockbusters. Director Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first film, understands the preconceived notions that grapple onto films such as this. Bland, unimaginative filmmakers have been tainting the action genre for years with half-hearted cash-grabs and mindless, fast-paced spectacle, and John Wick subverts these elements by adhering to them, almost religiously, but with a wink in its eye and passion in its heart. Much like its protagonist, John Wick: Chapter Two is a film of focus, commitment and sheer will.
Though it never states this, it seems as though John Wick: Chapter Two takes place only a few weeks after the events of the first film. It begins during Wick’s continuing rampage against Tarasov crime family, now targeting Viggo’s cousin who is in possession of Wick’s stolen car from the first film. The opening action sequences are some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a while. With the incorporation of references to the first film during a monologue from Peter Stormare, who plays Viggo’s brother, which includes another rendition of the legend of the pencil in the bar, cutting to the brutal beauty of Wick taking on an entire army of men, it had the audience at my showing in oohs and awes, gasps and laughs.
After this point, Wick has finished what he started, and goes back into retirement where he can quietly mourn the death of his wife in peace. However, it is soon after that he is pulled back onto the job via a “marker,” or a blood-oath Wick took in return for help during his “impossible task” before his previous retirement. The first John Wick did a phenomenal job of pacing, and this is sadly where the sequel falls short. At this point, the film slows to a crawl and doesn’t start back up again until much later. It is never boring, but it harkens for something more meaningful, and, thankfully, we do get it eventually, and the remainder of the film is complete, action-packed bliss.
The action scenes are pieces of art, each one an extremely distinctive dance of epic proportions. Stahelski perfects his craft with this sequel, crafting scenes of grace, beauty and devastation, all choreographed to utter perfection and shot with the utmost care and quality. While the actions are violent and destructive, they are directed with such ease. It is almost gentle the way they are presented; no shaky cam, no quick-cuts, everything is clare and concise. It is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Michael Bay-esque films that Hollywood is often plagued by. Reminds me of the work of Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), who, in my opinion, is the greatest of the modern action directors. Stahelski allows you to relish each punch, each kick and each drop of blood. It becomes more than just a fight, but an art.
The story within this film is far more complex than the first installment. The motivations were very easy to understand within the previous work. In a lot of ways, it was a classic revenge story; however, this is not the case for Chapter Two. While it is still a tale of revenge, the stakes are far higher and the scope is far greater. It also delves much deeper into the psyche of John Wick, what makes him tick, and what this life as an assassin means to him. He is actually a rather sympathetic character, and his situation just gets more dire as the film progresses.
I was reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king punished by the Gods and condemned to an eternity of hard labor. His task was to roll a great boulder to the top of a tall hill, yet every time he reached the summit, the boulder would roll back down, and he would have to do it all over again. Unlike such films as The Fast and Furious franchise where each film follows that “one last job,” in John Wick it seems more like a curse. Wick is weary of his reputation and life, yet when he is pulled back in, he goes in with such passion. A point is made within the film that Wick is addicted to that life, no matter how hard he tries to condemn it, it will eventually find its way back into his world. Maybe that is why he fears damnation. Even in death, he’ll be condemned to an eternity of labor, his fists pruning with the blood of his enemies.
The final shot of the film just furthers this point. It is a haunting explanation for the entire theme of the film. It makes the argument that maybe Wick has already found his hell. Easier to burn in hell when you’re already burning on earth, I guess.
4 out of 5