A worthy-as-hell sequel to a movie that I can never quite tell if I slightly underrated or not.
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Written by Derek Kolstad
With Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Ian McShane (Winston), Lance Reddick (Charon), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Laurence Fishburne (The Bowery King), Peter Stormare (Abram Tarasov), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D'Antonio), Common (Cassian), Ruby Rose (Ares), and Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D'Antonio)
Even after rewatching it, I still can't figure out if the first John Wick is a great movie, or just a good one. After all, everything bad I said about it back then is still just as true. But it's grown on me, and in my imagination; and, in many respects, John Wick: Chapter 2 makes John Wick better, by paying off so grandly upon the mythology which the first installment subtly and efficiently laid down. It's hard to say, then, if the sequel is truly superior to its predecessor—though I reckon that it must be. Its strengths are the same strengths, alongside new strengths, as well. Meanwhile, its weaknesses are much fewer—though they too are of its own creation.
There's not much more plot than there was the first time around. And, of what there is, it's the same plot—that is, it's almost the exact same plot. But now the franchise becomes, more than ever, the thing it always was: a weird and bloodstained semiotic odyssey through the process of one man's grief. (And if I ever said Wick was "about nothing," consider my opinion decisively changed.) But the tone has shifted in this second installment. Its mood is slightly different—to be specific, it's somehow darker—yet it ends with an ecstatic and terrifying zig, rather than in a head-on collision with a hilariously-overmatched Michael Nyqvist in the rain.
So: we begin not long after we left John, lo those three years ago, and we all suddenly remember, apparently alongside John himself (not to even mention Wick's returning screenwriter, Derek Kolstad), that all those Russian gangsters, who infamously stole his car and killed his dog, also stole his car. (The Mustang didn't seem nearly so important at the time, not while John was working through the loss of his last connection to his dead wife, which he did by killing the population of one of the smaller former Soviet republics.)
But that's how we're thrown back into the almost-supernatural underworld of Wick, as John tracks down the dead mob boss' brother and his erstwhile machine before the credits even roll—a cold open that reminds you a little bit of the structure of a Bond movie. Specifically Diamonds Are Forever, I suppose, and surely serving almost the exact same purpose. For John is still chasing his wife's ghost down further into the sunless lands; and you are led to expect that, unlike the crass Scots spy, John might well be chasing her forever. It hits like a bullet now, when you realize that one of John's facilitators is named "Charon," and that therefore the man we've been watching this whole time was always, himself, an Orpheus—this time reborn with a gun in his hand, instead of a lyre, though surely every bit as supreme at his chosen artform, and, of course, every bit as able to pacify all that come before him with what you might as well call a song.
Remember that, but now let's move forward, as John smashes his way through Abram Tasarov's chop shop and gets his car back, over the dead bodies of at least a half-dozen more Russians. (All while Peter Stormare, frankly tediously, reminds us at great and unsupportable length that we're watching the Boogeyman at work, just in case our eyes are as bad as Kolstad clearly thinks our memories must be.)
A fucking peen-seel!
But John, his mission accomplished, does something surprising: he offers peace. John would be a friend to peace, but peace has no affection for him, as he discovers to his dismay when Santino D'Antonio—the man who once did him the favor that allowed him to briefly escape the life of a super-assassin—asks John for a favor in return. The favor: kill his sister, Gianna, so that he can take her place at the council of crime syndicates. John demurs. Santino reminds him of the rules that bind them. John still refuses. Santino blows up his house. John, considering the price of dishonor, agrees, though it is against every fiber of his being.
And then a thousand people die, about half of them in the process of John attempting to fulfill his duty, and the other half after Santino, in a predictable turn, calls out the whole underworld against his sister's slayer.
Chapter 2 thus burrows deep into what the first film only glanced at, the borderline-magical-realist alternate universe of assassins, and now it opens itself up fully to our gaze: its sacred hotels upon which no blood must be spilled, its secret kingdoms of the homeless, and all its hidebound and arcane codes of conduct, whose violation can only be answered with, literally, excommunication, and subsequent death. It's fascinating. And anybody who's read Neil Gaiman's Sandman—which had its own Orpheus, to go along with its helmed Morpheus, who in time found he too could no longer abide the rules that both empowered him and caged him—will recognize implicitly and at once what Kolstad's made here, and from where he must be drawing his purest influence, even beyond all the Woos and the Wachowskis of our world. It's an ingenious thing, though, to embed it so firmly within a film that otherwise exists as a vehicle for stunning action set-piece after stunning action set-piece.
Well, that is the theory, isn't it? It is not, however, quite true. Chapter 2 takes its time winding up, and while there is nothing wrong with the languor of its pace—it reflects John's depression, his endless grief, and one of Chapter 2's most beautiful images is nothing more action-packed than a shot of a hallway in John's gorgeously austere home, mottled with the shadow of the raindrops splashing on his window. But the plot idles longer than it strictly must. Considering that there's never the slightest chance that John will run from his obligations, we probably could've done without the ten minutes he spends fighting the inevitable—especially when Keanu Reeves' rasped-out, "Please, don't ask me to do this," already gets everything we need to know about John's inner torment across, and in the span of an actor's breath. Still, I imagine the obliteration of his house can probably be read as some halfway-decent metaphor or another. (Maybe it's even worth it, for the shot of our infinitely-harried hero and his nameless new dog, walking across the bridge into Manhattan.)
I think we all know what this dog's name is, but it would be a little on-the-nose for the film to spell it out.
Either way, a film that got John to his mission in Rome more quickly would be a vastly more streamlined one; it would likewise be a film with an even more powerful and surprising ending than the one it already has, though I'm dancing on the edge of spoiling it; and in any event, we get ahead of ourselves.
Well, if it takes a long time to get going, it takes even longer to get to something legitimately heartpounding: the most impressive kill in the whole first hour of the film arrives when John confronts an enemy who—with the bleakest, blackest humor you've ever seen—realizes that, since facing John Wick is already tantamount to suicide, there's no reason not to make it easier for everyone involved. It's the reduction of every lopsided, narratively-preordained fight in every action movie ever made, boiled down into its most absurd and singular form. In its strange way, it's even almost a little legitimately moving—yet it perhaps might have meant even more, had not led directly into the lowlight of Chapter 2's action extravaganza (in fact, the lowlight of the franchise), a muddy-looking fighting retreat through the Roman catacombs that thinks it's the finale of The Third Man, only with assault rifles and shotguns, but isn't even in the same league in terms of tension, let alone aesthetic. (And yet director Chad Stahelski, apparently possessed of a hard-on for the cinema of the 1940s that no one could have ever seen coming, isn't even close to done with his homage to the past. And his next trick is a far, far better one.) Obviously: when you get down to it, something like two-thirds of this franchise is John killing non-player characters. But it had never gotten repetitive till this moment.
Nevertheless, once extricated from the catacombs, Chapter 2 picks up, rapidly and resolutely. John soon faces, yet again, the masses of the underworld arrayed against him—and one of Chapter 2's most glorious sequences is a delirious montage of several more just-as-nameless but far-more-sharply-defined super-assassins, all come to claim their prize. The intoxicating part is exactly how Stahelski and editor Evan Schiff dispose of continuity editing. Each fight cuts and bleeds right into one another; John's walking away from a body he hasn't even killed yet. John's never-ending trial-by-combat becomes a whole universe willing itself into collapse in its bid to destroy the indestructible man. Things never get that formally ingenious again, but they do keep getting more and more inventive in their staging: John runs back into a (named) foe from the Roman mission, and while it demands a little effort to silence your intellect as the two gunfight amidst an unaware throng of civilians, it's surely worth it to enjoy this, the lowest-key bit of sustained suspense in a movie that is usually fonder of much brasher gestures. And if we wish to speak of its brashest gesture, that, obviously, is where Stahelski's insane commitment to improving Orson Welles movies through gun-fu at last pays real dividends, and John faces his enemies, and himself, in a fortress of endless mirrors—a peerlessly bizarre, impossible place for an action movie to wind up. It is an art exhibit, of course.
Art and artistry, style as substance, the finer things in life—these are the accountrements of John's cold world. And one of the most compelling things about John's world is its inhabitants' appreciation of such an expansive aesthetic dimension. Outside the story, you can find it in Dan Lausten's cinematography, breathtakingly great at times. (Meanwhile, I wish I could say it's in the music, but that may actually be a step down from the first. Indeed, though Chapter 2 seems poised to repeat it, there is no analogue to that battle in the bath house scored to a hauntingly incongruous love song.) But within the story, it's everywhere: it's in those tailored suits, in the amusing comparison of guns to fine wine, in their office staff's wonderful tattoos, and certainly it's in those immaculate coiffures on everyone, whether they get a name or not, except for poor bald Common. And, above all, it's in the balletic beauty of every kill.
It's one more part of their code, you guess. It's the outward expression of what John has to be—a gentleman, or at least a gentleman by the standards of his fellow murderers. And it's an admirable thing, in its measure: from the polite way he treats the help, to his surprising willingness to spare a life, from time to time, out of respect for his enemies' motives, what he gutturally describes as "professional courtesy."
But, just like the first time, except even more noticeably, these fineries clothe the void Reeves has created in the heart of his character. Everything is beautiful here, except there's nothing in it, no air. Chapter 2 is a claustrophobic, underground thing. Its pace may allow a moment's rest; but Kevin Kavanaugh's production design almost never lets John breathe. And so even those damned catacombs, albeit a failure as an action setting, nonetheless do their part to establish the infernal atmosphere of the thing.
It's a journey through a hell of sheer elegance, alongside its corollary, constraint—and the only way out of it is through. John Wick: Chapter 2 closes out with one of the best inconclusive endings since The Empire Strikes Back itself; but, like that film, it still satisfies the soul, even as it tantalizes us with the more that shall inevitably come. The world's still coming for John. Now more than ever, in fact. But, like all legends who have walked through hell and lived, John has reemerged into the light. Chapter 2 gives us a happy ending. And it's a curious thing, because it shouldn't be—so much so that I didn't even recognize it as happy when I saw it. But consider: John's last words are, "Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all." The Maenads can't have him. For all that his existence has lost its meaning, John has chosen life.