John Wick: Chapter 2: An Exhilarating and Monumental Achievement in Action Filmmaking.
Review by Zach Beckler (Film Professor, Director, Great dude. Check out his award-winning film Interior)
John Wick: Chapter 2 is first and foremost an exhilarating and monumental achievement in action filmmaking. That is where I think it will succeed for most people who watch it. In the day since it screened, I haven’t been able to shake what is, on its surface at least, a stylish movie about hitmen navigating through an underworld. By the end, the film becomes one of the most politically rebellious genre films since They Live. Maybe even The French Connection.
You need to watch The French Connection.
Carpenter’s film shares many traits with John Wick 2, not the least being a fist fight so long it blossoms into out of body abstraction. All three films are about men caught in the gears of powerful and possibly ancient systems. Among the first of John Wick’s strengths is the fascinating world building, taking a standard revenge narrative to a place of underground mythology. John Wick 2 expands on this in ways both expected and unexpected. It adds more elements without sacrificing the mystery.
The story is light and efficient. Wick, retired for good, is brought back by an old acquaintance who, according to the tradition, has a kind of “unbreakable vow” over him. Wick is forced by these underworld customs to kill a high ranking member. When he is expectedly betrayed, a price is put on his head throughout the entire worldwide syndicate. This is where the film truly finds its voice.
In the first John Wick, this underworld is presumed to be just that. Here, we see the terrifying reach of it all, where anyone at anytime can pull a weapon and engage, including a wonderful moment in which Wick and another hitman have a secret gunfight in a crowd of people. John Wick is a man who went through unspeakable hell to get himself out, and through a series of unfortunate events, finds himself unable to escape it again. The film cannot end with him simply taking up the mantle of unstoppable killer again, as that would be the most unchallenging way to tell this story. Thankfully, the film is far too smart for that. Throughout, Wick makes a conscious effort not to kill unless engaged, shown explicitly in the opening action sequence in which Wick uses everything BUT his guns to get his car back. Do not get me wrong, the carnage on display is palpable, but there is a clear design and purpose to all of it, while not shying away from the physicality and brutality of murder (there is one scene involving a pencil…)
John Wick 2 wears its influences on its sleeve, from Sherlock Jr projected large on the side of a building in the opening shot, to the casting of Laurence Fishburne as the leader of an underground society of homeless that work adjacent to the main crime syndicate (a matrix within a matrix!). The films fascination with the mechanics of this world and the seclusion with which it works brought to mind William Friedkin’s The French Connection. There was never a police procedural that looked like it before, focused on the intricacies and details of police work within the sheltered worldview of Popeye Doyle. It also contains the definitive car chase, though it was not the first of its kind. Borrowing heavily from Bullitt, it amped up the intensity and, for the first time, took Doyle outside of his world in terrifying ways. John Wick has a sequence that great toward the end, escalating the room of mirrors scene from Enter The Dragon and putting Wick face to face with multiple versions of himself as he shoots into countless henchmen and abstractions of his own image. It is the film in microcosm and leads a powerful act of rebellion.
You’ve been warned
Wick follows our main bad guy into the bar of the Continental, a safe haven for all criminals. In this bar, against all established rules of conduct, John Wick shoots him point blank in the head. In a film with countless head shots, this is the most shocking act of violence. It is an affront to the social order. This act assures his excommunication from this world. All of his currency is void, all services offered no longer available, all safe havens closed. This leads to the most terrifying scene in the film, in which Ian McShane’s Winston shows Wick just how vast the empire is. This is no underworld. This is our world. We are all cogs in the wheels of enterprise. And we are participants in every criminal act.
The French Connection ends famously with Doyle, having accidentally shot a cop, running selfishly into the darkness, leaving behind any reason he ever may have had for donning the badge. It was made in an era that was attempting to inject explicit realism into every genre form. John Wick is not based in any recognizable reality, and is all the better for it. It reflects the culture it was released in. This film ends with Wick literally on the run. Unlike Doyle, Wick has broken free. A man and his dog, moving through a world that is no longer there for them. They cannot be allowed to live. Rebellion must be suppressed. Order must be restored. Industry must thrive. But if they come for John Wick… he will kill them all. But only if they engage.