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John Wick: Chapter 2

I can understand the temptation for a sequel to John Wick. Like any other right-thinking person who left the movie, I immediately wanted more of that unbelievably awesome action goodness with born-again badass Keanu Reeves at the center. To say nothing of the gold coins and the Continental, both of which hinted at a deeper mythology just waiting to be explored. On the other hand, it looked like the story of John Wick had come to a rather conclusive end, and it’s hard to think of any way his story could be continued without some pitiful contrivance.

But wait. Wasn’t there some legend about John Wick leaving the mob for the woman he loved? So the goddamn Baba Yaga had to take on an impossible task — killing all of his crime boss’ competitors in a single night — before he could be allowed his happily ever after? Seriously, forget the sequel — show me a prequel. Because THAT story sounds fucking awesome.

But no, we got John Wick: Chapter 2, which is sure as hell better than nothing. But how could they have made this movie work when the story of John Wick seemed good and resolved at the end of the first film? Well, let’s take a look.

Right off the bat, we get a prologue concerning one of the few loose ends left over from the previous film: John’s car, previously stolen and sold off to some chop shop. Well, it turns out that the car is still intact and in the hands of Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), the hitherto unmentioned brother of the mob boss who was the chief antagonist of the previous film. Thus we open with a massive action sequence in which John and his precious car are both beat to shit. But at the end of it, John and Abram meet each other and that’s it. They both agree to share a drink and let bygones be bygones so they don’t have to try and kill each other anymore, and that’s the end of it.

Yes, it’s contrived. And yes, it’s stupid. But looking back on that prologue having seen the entire movie, it’s actually quite important in a lot of deeper ways.

To start with, there’s the car that John went through all the trouble in retrieving. Sure, he got it back, but only after it was so thoroughly damaged in the attempt that it wouldn’t do him a lot of good anyway. Not a bad metaphor for revenge, which has always been the driving motivation of this character for as long as we’ve known him. Secondly, there’s the fact that he was able to actually end a conflict through diplomacy. Even if a whole lotta henchmen were killed in the bargain, and even though they both have every reason to kill each other, John was able to successfully make a crime boss back off. This is what it looks like when somebody in this underworld of criminals¬†decides to cut their losses and leave John the fuck alone. It raises the possibility that maybe this character can find peace after all. Which brings me to the third point: Even more than the ending of the previous film did, this prologue quite firmly establishes that John has resolutely put his assassin’s past behind him.

So John has once again buried his old stash of guns and coins under concrete. And his retirement is quite literally brought to an end before the concrete has even had time to dry.

Enter Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who comes around to collect on a blood debt in return for assistance provided to John as part of that “impossible task” I mentioned a while back. (Seriously, are we ever going to actually see that story?!) It seems that Santino’s sister (Gianna D’Antonio, played by Claudia Gerini) has recently inherited a seat at “The High Table”, which is apparently some kind of royalty in the criminal underworld. And Santino wants John to kill Gianna so her brother will take her place. Naturally, John refuses and insists that he’s retired for good this time.

So Santino does the sensible thing and blows up John’s house. Mercifully, at least the dog lives this time.

Having decided to clear his blood debt first and kill Santino later, John takes on the job. But of course this is no small feat. He is, after all, going out to kill a newly-coronated monarch among the deadliest assassins in the world. A sprawling international network of criminals will be out for his head, to say nothing of Gianna’s own elite personal guard (the leader of which is Cassian, played by Common). And Santino? Yeah, he won’t be any help. Privately, he needs to tie up loose ends; and publicly, he can’t allow his sister’s killer to walk free.

In summary, we’ve got John Wick — a legendary assassin with no wife, no home, and no chance of going back to the innocent civilian life he only knew for a few brief years — going up against the entire fucking world, with thousands of professional killers out to kill him for financial and/or personal gain.

I’m not going to say too much about the action, because of course the action speaks for itself. If you want more of the same ruthless, bloody, creative, rough-and-tumble action from the previous film, you’re going to get all that and a hall of mirrors. Oh, and we also get to see for ourselves EXACTLY how it’s possible for John to kill three people with nothing but a pencil. However, while the action is amazing when it happens, the fight scenes are noticeably fewer and further between. This is due to the story, which is nowhere near as simple as that of the first one.

From the outset, this film was tasked with expanding upon the world and mythology of the prequel. Unfortunately, this means as a direct result that the story to this movie is a lot more complex, with way more moving parts. This naturally means more exposition which in turn means long stretches without action.

However, the good news is that the franchise mythology unfolds in a way that’s consistently engaging. Most of the exposition is conveyed through elaborate montages and coded dialogue, rather than long stretches of characters talking. It’s genuinely impressive how much the cast is able to convey simply by discussing certain topics and trading certain phrases in certain tones of voice.

Another great benefit of all the world-building is that even in scenes without action, the onscreen events are given so much weight that they are nonetheless thrilling to watch. The climax is a key example, as the true climax of this film isn’t some huge drawn-out action sequence. No punches, no cars, no knives, no bombs… nothing but a single shot fired. But the implications and consequences of that one shot have been so thoroughly established as so impossibly epic that it hits the audience like a massive punch to the gut when it happens.

This brings me to the ending, which I’ll discuss as spoiler-free as I can. My first reaction upon seeing the ending was to think of it as sequel-bait, a desperate plea for a third movie that’s not currently guaranteed to happen. But upon further reflection, the ending is actually quite emblematic of several deeper themes regarding the franchise. We know that John Wick is a man who’s lived by the sword for a considerable portion of his life, and there’s always been the question of whether he’ll have to eventually die by the sword. Moreover, it speaks to how violence is a vicious circle. The quest for revenge goes back and forth, getting worse and worse with every cycle until it consumes everything.

At its heart and core, this is a violent franchise about the mental, emotional, spiritual decay that is brought by a life of violence and a world fueled by bloodshed. John Wick is a homicidal psychopath, yet he’s sympathetic because he doesn’t want to be a homicidal psychopath anymore. But as long as somebody’s stupid enough to force him back into the life of a criminal, he’ll do what he has to do. And as long as somebody’s dumb or desperate enough to try and kill him, he’s going to defend himself by any means necessary until the threat is neutralized.

Speaking of which, there’s an interesting scene in which a character commits suicide. In the moment, again, it seems like a strange anticlimax. But upon reflection, it raises an interesting point about John: What’s to stop him from ending the cycle and killing himself? It’s not like he has any family or any obvious reason to live anymore. He could go out with dignity on his terms. And even if he has to take the guilt for his own death, at least he’d be denying anyone else the guilt (or the glory, as the case may be) for his passing.

Moving on, Keanu Reeves is of course amazing to watch in the title role. Also returning are John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick to provide some brief yet welcome comic relief. Peter Serafinowicz also stops by for a funny little cameo role, guiding John through a massive armory with the flair of a professional wine steward.

Elsewhere, Ian McShane returns to lend all his considerable gravitas toward helping establish this world. Laurence Fishburne makes a brief yet show-stealing appearance to do the same. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Franco Nero, here playing the manager of the Continental’s branch in Rome, who’s more than capable of selling himself as a worthy Italian counterpart to McShane.

Then we have our villains. Common shines in some fantastic fight scenes with John, and their stoic banter is comedy gold. Ruby Rose is on hand to play Santino’s chief enforcer, and she’s mute for some reason. Whatever — she’s Ruby Rose, she’s gorgeous, and she’s awesome. As for the Big Bad, Riccardo Scamarcio is a neat middle ground between the two main villains of the previous film. He’s got all the short-sighted arrogance and sleaze of the junior Tarasov, but he’s also got the calculating eccentricity of the senior. It’s a good mix, well performed.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a fine sequel. It may not have nearly as many brain-dead high-adrenaline thrills of the first one, but it makes up for that with some fine world-building, enjoyable performances, and surprisingly deep yet subtle reflections on the nature of revenge and violence. Plus, if there are fewer action scenes in this movie, they’re all far and away better than anything in the previous film.

If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen the first one, the prologue does such a good job bringing everyone up to speed that coming in cold shouldn’t be a problem. Go ahead and see either one first, but don’t you dare see one without the other.

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