John Wick is essentially the American James Bond — more aggressive, less refined and generally a little dumber. But as with many dumb things, it can be a hell of a lot of fun. Anyone who enjoyed last year’s first installment — and based on the box office numbers and surprising level of critical acclaim, that was quite a few people — will find plenty to like about the sequel, as John Wick: Chapter 2 is more of the same, just more ornate in its packaging. You’ll find the same hand-to-hand heavy action sequences with the degree of stylization turned up to eleven, and, defying all logic and reason, the headshots have multiplied by a significant margin. With the benefit of retrospection, John Wick may prove to be one of the definitive roles associated with Keanu Reeves’ career.
The expanded budget showcases a more conventional narrative through line, eschewing the puppy-murder prompted revenge plot driving the first film for a story revolving around the blood-oath Wick swore to escape his life as a top-tier hit man the last time around. The entire premise of John Wick’s character has always reminded me a bit of Gene Wilder’s speech as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, wherein he recounts his tribulations as a renowned gunslinger — as more and more assassins try to claim Wick’s life, I found myself waiting for him to say, “Little bastard shot me in the ass” before limping to the nearest saloon and crawling into a bottle. The comedic association here is not, strictly speaking, incidental, as the John Wick films seem to have a well-established sense of humor regarding their own ridiculousness — while not as openly farcical as Blazing Saddles, these films often play like a loving parody of the action film genre writ large. It’s hard to watch a scene in which Reeves’ Wick casually trades gunfire with adversarial counterpart Cassian (Common) in a crowded subway station without getting the sense that the whole thing is being played with tongue firmly in cheek.
This is not to say, however, that the action is not taken seriously. Director Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on the Matrix films, employs his extensive knowledge of martial arts (specifically judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu) to meticulously choreograph fight scenes that play out a bit like the famed hammer scene in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, had that single sequence been stretched to nearly two hours in length. Reeves may not be a graduate of the Gracie school, but his crash course in jiu-jitsu serves him well enough that his fights never degenerate into absurdity, and the frenetic pacing keeps the camera moving at a healthy clip without the aid of any excessively overwrought setups or CGI contrivances. Despite Stahelski’s grounding in real-world combat, his fight sequences follow the standard action movie laws of physics and biology — meaning cars remain functional after impossible amounts of damage and human bodies are either nigh-invulnerable or incredibly fragile, depending on the needs of the narrative.
Despite its obvious lunacy and surrealistic wish-fulfillment fantasy underpinnings, John Wick: Chapter 2 makes effective and efficient use of its genre trappings and influences while still maintaining a unique sensibility that can only be described as Wickian. Sure, the last half of the second act is basically just a one-man revisitation of The Warriors, the third act climax borrows heavily from that of Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai as well as Enter The Dragon, and Lawrence Fishburne seems to be here for no other reason than to reunite Neo and Morpheus — but when you take into account the film’s bizarre allusions to Greek mythology and the Tibetan Book of the Dead along with its narrative universe in which at least ten percent of the populace of major cities seem to be gimmick-based assassins, you have an end product that is more or less unique in the landscape of modern action cinema. Chapter 2‘s climax is set in a proxy for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, establishing a visual juxtaposition between high and low art that may be the perfect encapsulation of the purpose behind John Wick as both a character and a franchise — those with an appreciation for crass spectacle (and I count myself among those ranks) will find John Wick: Chapter 2 right on target. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.