He might not be exactly Shakespearean in his conception, but the character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is, at heart, an absurdly tragic one.
The world’s deadliest assassin, his attempt to settle down to an ordinary life is made impossible; first, by the death of his wife, and, second, by the theft of his beloved car and the murder of his dog.
It’s this that set in motion the bloody, rampageous events of 2014’s John Wick. Directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, who worked with Reeves on the Matrix franchise, it was slick, fast-paced, a stylish, neo-noir tale of vengeance — the perfect vehicle just for the hard-hitting master of Zen.
Without breaking from the formula, Chapter 2 finds a different angle to the tragedy of John Wick: that of a man so good at killing, he simply can’t be permitted to stop.
Having finally recovered his 1969 Mach 1 Mustang and declared peace to Peter Stormare’s oleaginous survivor, John Wick: Chapter 2 sees our protagonist trying to settle back into what remains of his retirement. Now that he’s announced his return, though, both in word and deed, there are some people looking for him.
No sooner has he relain the garage floor over his hidden weapons cache and laid out the food bowl for his new unnamed dog, than a former associate arrives on his doorstep looking to call in a marker. Try as Wick can, pleadingly, to avoid it, this isn’t the kind of marker one can refuse1 and any attempt to do so carries dire consequences — the sort of consequences that might necessitate a return of their own accord.
Chapter 2 provides not only more lean, propulsive action, courtesy of Stahelski and Co., but expands on the mythology that set apart the first from the rest of the shoot-em’-up pack. Excluding, perhaps, the Merovingian’s chateaux in The Matrix Reloaded, no criminal underworld has ever been more well-to-do than the one run out The Continental Hotel.
Two films in and John Wick is already working in callbacks that would shame a much more established franchise. As in the first film, the only cop we see, the curiously impassive/impassively curious Jimmy (Thomas Sadowski), has no interest in arresting anyone — “You workin’ again, John?”.
For a supposedly secret society, everyone seems to be in on it. There are no civilian casualties; in part because, as far as we yet know, there may well be no actual civilians. Chapter 2 broadens the mythos so that anyone on the street could be a part of this world — the homeless guy muttering to himself could an emissary to the Bowery King (a chortling Laurence Fishburne in his now-usual trend of glorified end-of-second-act cameos) — which adds a rewarding touch of paranoid thriller to the brew.
There’s a great SNL skit to be made about the one guy in the John Wick universe who’s not a secret assassin: all of his friend’s talking animatedly at the bar then suddenly falling silent when he turns up; paying in strange gold coins that seem to have no set value; moving on to The Continental and his not being able to join them.
Stahelski himself has talked about wanting to work on the Bond franchise, but with John Wick it feels like he’s already done it, to a degree. The elegance and sophistication on display here make 007, with his oh-so obvious Omegas and familiar martinis, look common.
In John-Wick-World, Q now takes the form of “The Sommelier” (a ghostly, wonderfully arch Peter Serafinowicz), who speaks of heavy ordinance like fine wines. Here, when a conversation takes place in art gallery à la Skyfall, chances are someone owns the gallery.
Common, meanwhile, looks great, playing a professional with a grudge to bear against Wick. The two of them walking in parallel through a public thoroughfare, pissily taking potshots, unnoticed. Ruby Rose, recently seen in xXx3, appears as a silent, flirty killer.
Even the hordes of henchmen whom Wick near effortlessly dispatches — CGI blood spraying forth from that final inevitable head-shot — are dressed, all, in designer suits. Notably, their’s, unlike the named actors’, aren’t bulletproof. In an added note of propriety, during a shootout at an art gallery their blood never touches the paintings; merely adding a few informal abstracts to the walls.
This is, in its own way, as much a fantasy as The Matrix series. Even the New York subway is initially clean, white, and perfect — all the better for leaving behind a smear of blood on the walls. It also makes Bourne look tame: even given Jason’s penchant for misappropriating office supplies, Wick does things with a pencil that he would never dream of.
John Wick: Chapter 2 may be the best video-game movie not based on a video-game; so great is our avatar’s ease and fluency. Going by Assassin’s Creed, that might be the only way to do things.
Wick takes his knocks, sure, but there’s always another classically styled, neon-lit set-piece — a flood-lit concert in a Roman ruin — or diverting cut-scene; the best of which tend to feature Winston (Ian McShane; as ever twinkly and magisterial), the ever-available manager of The Continental.
With his long hair and Mephistophelian beard, Keanu Reeves is the perfect, ass-kicking vehicle for Wick’s sublimated fury and force of will. Every fist he throws, every shot he fires, is as flawless as his suit, though far more likely to get bloody.
As the film, in its third act, mounts a half-committed descent into hell, we become aware how little we know him. It’s hard to care about the state of Wick’s soul, his hopes for the future even, when we never got to know the man he might have been. His whole plan for retirement seems to consistent of moping around the house — where, by the way, it always seems to be raining. At least this gets him out and about.
Furthermore, Chapter 2’s antagonist — smug Camorra crime boss Santino (Riccardo Scamario) — has a face almost a punchable as that of the weaselly Iosef (Alfie Allen) from original film.
It’s up to Chapter 3 then to delve into how John Wick became Baba Yaga, “The Man You Send to Kill the Boogeyman”: his presumably humble beginnings, his acceptance into Hogwarts for Hitmen; maybe even the origins of the The Continental itself as a B&B in East Anglia run by Lovejoy.
If John Wick: Chapter 2 is, as its title suggests, part of some grand literary endeavor, then I for one have great expectations for the future.