John Wick: Chapter 2 begins where John Wick (2014) left off with Wick (Keanu Reeves) finally tracking down his missing car at a chop shop. All viewers really need to know about the previous movie is that Wick is a retired assassin who got back into the killing game when gangsters offed his puppy and stole his car. The long cold opening in this film finds Wick finally settling that score, killing a bunch of baddies and recovering his car, and attempting to return to something resembling the peaceful life he shared with his wife, Helen, before the events of the first film. All Wick really wants is to turn his back on the criminal cabal run by the lords of the underworld who sit at the High Table, and mix and mingle at places like the Continental hotel in New York which caters to killers like Wick. It sounds simple, but – of course – in this world of villains and vendettas nothing is ever that simple.
This second chapter of the Wick saga maintains the strengths of the first movie – it’s a distinctively stylized action film that invites viewers into an icy cold criminal universe that has its own codes of conduct, hierarchies, traditions and luxurious locations like the Continental where the haberdasher can make you a bulletproof suit. It’s a really cool universe that the movie reveals to be hiding just below the surface of the everyday world we all live in. This hidden-world-within-the-world, Reeves’ bruising and brooding performance, and an appearance by Laurence Fishburne all make this second Wick film feel – in the best way – a little bit like the new Matrix movie we didn’t know we needed.
Most importantly John Wick: Chapter 2 finds Reeves’ former Matrix stunt double, Chad Stahelski, back in the director’s seat, but this time he’s joined by Crimson Peak cinematographer Dan Laustsen, whose neo-noir cityscapes and interiors are bathed in lurid neon that sinks into seductive shadows. This pair eschew animation, green screens and breakneck editing for car chases, fight sequences and gun battles that are choreographed like musical numbers and shot from artful angles. We are currently living in a golden age of movie fight choreography with films like Marvel’s Captain America franchise, and their Daredevil series on Netflix achieving jaw-dropping new highs when it comes to putting fisticuffs on the screen. The first Wick film was a marvel of martial arts and gunplay, and the artful chaos of this sequel only raises that bar even higher. At its best John Wick: Chapter 2 is a pure cinematic mayhem of sounds and images merging into a propulsive, crimson wave that pushes the film forward despite the paper thin plot and the nearly-nothing story it rests on.
The John Wick films are also bloody as hell, and feature outrageous body counts of bad guys that stack up as fast as anything you’d find in the most violent first person shooter video games. I’m sure there are critics and audiences who hate these films for the self-conscious casualness – and even comedy – that they bring to on-screen killing. I can’t imagine anybody who loves cinema, and understands how it works, not being thrilled at the real artistry that informs this blood-spattered beauty of a film. But there is no doubt that John Wick: Chapter 2 necessarily raises serious questions with its headshots that read like punchlines, and its countless nameless torsos exploding to the sound of very realistic, very loud gunfire.
I’m not against movie violence. I’d be the first person to argue that physical conflict of any kind is an intrinsically cinematic phenomenon, and that audiences will always want to see westerns, boxing films, gangster movies, martial arts sagas and war films for that reason. That said, I hope we will also continue to ask questions about the way that violence is portrayed in these stories we tell ourselves. I don’t believe that violent movies make people commit violent acts. But I do think that our art reflects our culture, and I wonder what it says about America – and even Hollywood’s global audience – when movies like John Wick: Chapter 2 become both commercial and critical hits. Forbes described the film’s $30 million opening weekend as “explosive.” You might even say it killed.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is playing locally in wide release.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.