John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, perhaps incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake — that’s not homage. It’s a declaration of principles. Hell, it’s a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space — the magical Méliès, perhaps, to Chaplin’s more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the influential athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back directly to Keaton’s knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the most musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee’s lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan’s more broadly comic (but no less precisely conceived and executed) on-screen fighting style. Jackie Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining rom-com mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves’ into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.
They have a point. There’s more going on in the John Wick films than a superficial mastery of action tropes. For one thing, Stahelski is an experienced stunt coordinator with a feeling for screen action at a plainly physical level. Probably partly for that reason, his style eschews the most prevalent annoying tic of contemporary directors — let’s call it the Zach Snyder effect — who’ve gotten in the habit of ramping frame rates up and down within action scenes, and sometimes within a single shot, to exploit admittedly beautiful combat-porn imagery at the expense of any sense of timing and rhythm. Instead, Stahelski opts to capture the rhythm of action in camera, timing gunshots and body blows to create a bracing percussive soundscape. (One scene here is set to “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with gunfire providing an irregular, soldier-boy drumbeat.) For another, the well-trained Reeves seems nearly as fiercely dedicated as the rest of the professional stunt team. His face is clearly visible in much of the action, maintaining intimacy between audience and character even in the most outrageous situations. He’s state-of-the-art action hero as modern dancer, and he’s never been a more compelling screen presence. Finally, the visuals are genuinely amazing. DP Dan Laustsen’s work is a steely variant on the even more intensely stylized visuals he captured for Crimson Peak, but what’s especially impressive is how rarely the kinetic action calls in CG reinforcements. That opening sequence that begins with the callback to Sherlock Jr. features not just a car and motorcycle chase through Times Square but also a massive set piece in which cars are flung around inside a spacious warehouse like two-ton hockey pucks, disabling other mechanical targets and sending human ones airborne like ragdolls. The pièce de résistance of the sequence is a “flying drift” that has a car sliding sideways while airborne, exiting the warehouse by way of a short ramp leading the way through an open doorway. John Wick: Chapter 2 takes not a moment to dwell on this achievement — you don’t see it in super-slo-mo, nor has it been time-stretched in the editing room to extend its appearance on screen. There are no gawping bystanders to play-act shock and awe. But the scene has just enough space built into it that you see the stunt clearly. You feel the mass of the car as it flies, spinning through its turn in mid-air before slamming roughly into the ground. It’s a practical effect, executed by human beings fighting with the physics and gravity of the same planet Earth as the rest of us, and it’s glorious in its tossed-off simplicity.
I’m trying not to overstate the achievement here. When I walked out of the first John Wick film, I tweeted my hot take that it was, basically, a cheeseburger — but it was a really good cheeseburger. Indeed, John Wick holds up years later as a straightforward but savory revenge drama with tragedy to spare (our protagonist is spurred to action not just by a dead wife and a stolen car, but by a murdered puppy), backstory that knows not to overstay its welcome (Wick is an erstwhile member of an international assassin class that gathers for respite in plush underground lodgings and abides by a strict professional code), and action that doesn’t quit, all sauced up with a just slightly smug sense of self-awareness. John Wick: Chapter 2 is much the same but more so, for better and worse. The first act is your basic just-when-I-thought-I-was-out scenario, with Wick getting roped into one last job as payback for the enormous favor that helped him get out of the assassin’s lifestyle in the first place. The second act culminates in a double-cross that puts Wick on the run with a bounty on his head. And in the third act he finds that revenge, while achievable, comes with a price.
Simple stuff, but Wick 2 gets many of the details right. The casting is on target, adding Common, Laurence Fishburne, and Franco Nero himself to an ensemble that already featured John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick and Ian McShane. The hand-to-hand combat is often quite exciting, as when Reeves attacks a small cadre of rivals with a single pencil or faces off against a peer in a fight on a subway car where the camera operators push in just close enough to read every detail on a man’s face as the knife goes in. But the real fireworks are in the gunfights, which combine martial-arts moves, precision trigger-squeezes, and convincing digital squibs to drop Wick’s enemies. In Wick’s signature move, he squeezes off two shots in quick succession, precisely adjusting his aim in between, a gesture that underscores his speed in tactical combat while creating a crackling pop-pop sound effect that just scratches a certain itch. So does the film’s drollest scene, where Wick and Common’s character, Cassian, who is after Wick for his own revenge-related reasons, squeeze off shots at each other covertly, over a small distance — they are murderous gentlemen’s extending a courtesy to the clueless normals surrounding them.
Beyond its jocular gestures and visceral energy, is the John Wick series really about anything beyond the amalgam of fearless physicality and hard-boiled tropes that constitute its cinematic ancestry? If you feel Reeves brings to the role a certain soulfulness and goodwill, maybe. A well-loved actor with a reputation for unstinting niceness, Reeves plays Wick as a reluctant angel of death who projects a slender, sartorial elegance that belies the unsettled antihero within. In one scene, a so-called sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz, in a very finely tuned performance) advises Wick on weapon selection as though walking him through a multicourse dinner. If you read that as gun porn and thus distasteful, you’re partly right — but it’s absolutely meant to play as a sick joke. (The film’s refusal to acknowledge the effects of violence in even the most superficial way is less defensible, but maybe more in keeping with the Hollywood norm. As John Wick shoots his way out of a crowded concert in an outdoor amphitheater, I know we’re not supposed to think about this, but: bystanders?) Wick is aware that these fetishes are troubling; at one point during the assembly of his arsenal, he takes a moment to shriek over the spiritual calamity of his return to the underworld. When he confronts his target, she asks him, “Do you fear damnation, John?” and he answers in the affirmative. One character compares Wick to the Old Testament God, another one calls him the devil, and Fishburne’s Bowery King gives him a gun with seven bullets and sends him to Hell. Appropriately, the film’s final elaborate set piece takes place in a hall of mirrors where abstract video art, some of it in colors that suggest hellfire, blazes on video screens. And the film’s coda, which has Wick leaving Central Park in a hurry, can easily be read as an allegory for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, meaning our hero has a lot to answer for. Even if you don’t buy that the film’s concerns are positively Biblical in proportion, the underlying tragedy of John Wick is that he’s dogged by his past, unable to take control of his present, and facing an uncertain future. Like anyone else dogged by their own misdeeds, he’s the principled but flawed hero of his story — a good soul, spoiled.