In most shots of the two John Wick movies, John Wick is the only thing worth looking at.
Oh, sure, sometimes enemies dare confront him, rushing in from off-camera to be dispatched with a quick, brutal barrage of bullets. But the camera is usually pinned to him as he dances and swirls amid the chaos, a strangely graceful weapon of a man.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is only rarely a movie about two people having a fight, because only a handful of people in the John Wick universe can go toe-to-toe with Wick. No, John Wick: Chapter 2 is about trying to get inside the head of — maybe even empathize with — a death machine.
Wick’s world, which seems to operate by some mysterious assassin’s code that may as well have been handed down wholesale from the middle ages, is always needlessly byzantine when something more straightforward would do. But Wick himself is as stripped-down and simple in his motivations as possible. In 2014’s John Wick, he avenged the death of his dog; in the new sequel, he’s mad somebody burned down his house (though this grows more complicated).
Sure, the John Wick movies nod toward, say, how hard it is to break cycles of revenge and other standard action movie tropes. But they’re mostly about how good it would feel to be a one-man army, to be able to kill anybody you see with minimal struggle, even if all you had on hand was a pencil.
In this way, the John Wick movies capture, better than any other action movies, the peculiar feeling of being an American in the 21st century: blessed with immense power but always kinda bummed out about it.
Abandon your moral compass, all ye who enter here
The standard adjective to apply to Wick is “balletic.” By this, critics usually mean that the action sequences in a film are so beautifully and tightly choreographed that they approximate the feeling of watching a dance number or an elaborate slapstick comedy routine. (For a good example of how the word “balletic” can apply to action, watch literally any fight scene featuring Jackie Chan in his prime.)
To be sure, the action sequences and gunfights in both Wick movies have moments of sheer, choreographed wonder. But for the most part, they’re solo numbers — or, at best, a duet between actor Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski’s camera. Wick holds centerstage, blowing away all who would dare oppose him.
That, of course, makes it all the more thrilling when a worthy opponent for Wick comes along, and Stahelski lets both hold the center of the screen while their fight goes on. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the most worthy opponent is Cassian, played by Common, as the biggest threat Wick has yet faced. (He has more trouble dispatching Cassian than entire rooms full of goons.) In one thrilling shot, Stahelski sends Wick and Cassian careening down opposite sides of a row of parked cars, ducking and weaving to fire at each other. In that moment, it really does feel like they’re doing an elaborate dance.
But these thrilling moments are fewer and farther between than you might expect. Every Wick movie is structured to suggest that only a couple of people on the face of the planet can stand with John Wick, that even if you send an endless army after him, he will gun down every member of that army. The scripts’ video game-like structure — right down to a “level” in John Wick: Chapter 2 that could be called “The Catacombs” — further enhances this dehumanization of Wick’s opponents. He’s a wrecking ball, and they’re there to be wrecked.
To be clear, this is a feature, not a bug. The John Wick movies are about momentum, about Wick moving so precisely and so quickly that he reaches a point where he feels more god than man. If some action movie protagonists are regular folks, whose prowess is enhanced by the unusual circumstances in which they find themselves, Wick is superhuman. He’s aspirational, not relatable.
Yet this also means the films are actively inviting you to imagine yourself as a one-person murder factory. Because the movies usually don’t have dramatic tension in the traditional sense — you don’t really worry that John Wick will lose a fight, because, well, look at the title — they instead derive their tension from, say, wondering how Wick will get out of this latest trap, or whether all of this weighs on his soul just a little bit.
To the series’ credit, it’s at least interested in the question of Wick’s ultimate morality — or, maybe, it knows it should pretend to be interested. But the moments when, say, Wick says he worries about being damned are brushed aside by Stahelski’s sheer skill at staging operatic action. The brutality and bloodshed lose any of the weight the movie wants them to have when they take place in a gigantic hall of mirrors punctuated by occasional flare-ups of digital flame.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is the rare sequel to expand a film’s universe without getting too complicated
Those questions of morality may be what you leave John Wick: Chapter 2 thinking about. But during the movie, you’ll be too swept up in Wick’s journey from where he settled at the end of the first film (in a flimsy “retirement”) back into the world of skullduggery and assassinations to think about much else.
John Wick 2 is pretty clearly designed as the middle section of a trilogy — though news of John Wick 3 is not yet available, and Stahelski will be spending the next while on his Highlander remake. It picks up on loose threads introduced in the first film in hopes of weaving them into a bigger picture, then very clearly creates a new status quo a third film can pick up whenever it arrives.
What’s most remarkable about John Wick 2 is that none of the above trips it up. As anyone who watched, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean films can attest, retrofitting a largely terrific standalone film into an ongoing saga is ridiculously difficult to pull off. And there are times when John Wick 2 introduces some new piece of mythology or some larger aspect of its crime-ridden world that threaten to topple over into self-serious camp. The film flirts with the “saga” taking precedence over the immediate story, but it always ends up on the right side of the line, sometimes miraculously.
This is because whenever Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad box themselves in with Too Much Story, Wick just shoots his way out of it. For example: There’s a lot of business here about a new character who wants his sister dead, so he can take her seat as one of 12 at The Table; instead of turning this into a chance to over-explain what The Table is or something similar, the film trusts that you’ll figure it out amid John Wick killing people. (You will.)
Over-explanation is the enemy of stripped-down tales like John Wick, which is why it’s so refreshing that even as it expands and deepens its already existing crime-ridden world (which includes such delightful idiosyncrasies as a network of homeless assassins spying on everybody, and the return of the first movie’s Hotel for Assassins and its proprietor, played by the great Ian McShane), it keeps things relatively simple. John Wick 2 has a firm sense of its rules and how they interact with its characters and setting, but also a belief that viewers can keep up.
And Stahelski never met a frame he couldn’t turn into a visual presentation on theology and/or art history. (One character hangs out in a museum pretty much so he can loiter in front of marble statues all the time.) He and cinematographer Dan Laustsen are always lighting characters so half their faces are swathed in shadow, and, yeah, we get it. This is an unsettling world. But boy, does it look great.
Yet even at its grandest, most operatic heights, it’s hard to escape the sheer amount of death John Wick deals out, sometimes just because it’s easiest. The film embraces its own murky center when Wick makes some truly questionable moral decisions, but it also tries to suggest that’s just the world he lives in, that he’s bound by the codes he pretends to follow.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. Wick is a cipher of a man, and pretty much all we know about him is that he loves his dead wife, his pets, and his stuff. He’s played by Reeves, one of our most famously remote actors (though a tremendous physical performer). He is, in every frame where he stands alone, a one-man bullet storm, an invitation to consider how hard it would be to exercise restraint if we possessed his weapons and skills, how we’re all of us closer to sinking into hell than we might pretend.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in theaters everywhere.