Sometimes when people try to explain the art of choreographing action sequences in film, they refer to it as a “dance.” In many ways, this makes complete sense. Both require heavy rehearsals, they are emotionally charged, take the surrounding into account, require a sense of flow, and cohesion, and they place the human body through incredible stress, and yet, there is a certain beauty to be found, a story to be told, and an emotion to convey and feel. In American action cinema, this is something that has always been lacking, with some exceptions here, and there. When John Wick came along in 2014, it caught everyone completely off guard. It was like a cold bucket of water being splashed in your face when you least expected, and it blew our minds. It was a lightning in a bottle, a masterful work of economic storytelling, world building, and stunningly choreographed gunplay. And we wanted more.
Fast forward to today, and we now have the highly anticipated sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, bringing back pretty much everyone involved with the first film, minus one of the directors (Chad Stahelski is going solo this time around). It’s about John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who is forced into a job due to a blood oath he has taken years prior, only to find himself screwed over, and having to fight back.
I am delighted to say that the lightning in a bottle has been broken free. In what could only be described as a miracle, John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t just a perfect sequel, it’s a straight up masterpiece.
When I reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road, I talked about how it was a work of pure cinema. Action films automatically lends themselves to that because – at their best – they are able to create an experience that cannot be replicated in any other storytelling medium. John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t quite on the same level as Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s still incredible nonetheless. It utilizes sight, sound, and movement with such clarity, artistry, and meticulousness in its craft.
Earlier I mentioned how choreographing action is comparable to that of a dance, and this film works on that element to an amazing extent. A thing I notices within each action scene is that the camera focuses almost exclusively on John Wick. Typically, a film will show you the protagonist, then it will show you the people he is about to engage in conflict with, following the various moves that each party makes. Here, John Wick will be going through hallways, facing the direction of the camera, and he’ll shoot someone who just barely enters the side of the shot. This is how you know the filmmakers are 100% in-tune to what they’re doing, they understand that the appeal of seeing a film like this is seeing someone who is good at their job doing what they’re good at, and because his character has such an enormous reputation (he’s called “the Boogeyman” for crying out loud), it’s important to visualize that. So, instead of constantly cutting away to the bad guys, we simply follow John Wick as he takes down each individual, capturing his every swipe, shot, stab, punch, kick, flip to every opponent that enters the screen. It’s there, not just because it’s cool to watch, but it serves a purpose in a way that is totally cinematic. I even love the little touches of physical comedy that the films throws in at just the perfect moments. From a hilariously long fall down a set of stairs to a scene involving John Wick trying to discreetly shoot someone in a crowded area. It’s a series that has embraced its silliness from the get-go with the first film, and they expand upon it even more in this one.
Similar to films like Aliens, or even a recent one like The Raid 2, John Wick: Chapter 2 builds upon the first film, doubling down on all the elements that worked so well and resonated with audiences the first time, and delivering them in spades. We get to see more of this underground world of organized assassins, their code of conduct, and their procedures. However, it’s not just the scope of the film that it broadens up, it’s also the emotional stakes. In the first film, we get a very visceral motivation that keeps the audience engaged – man has dog, dog gets killed, man kills everyone – simple, but effective. Here, we get to dive more into John Wick’s head, and how he is processing his predicament. I feel there is a lot to chew on when it comes to John Wick as a character. He is still haunted by the death of his wife, and it’s clear that he is still going through his grieving process, and the world around him is not giving the opportunity to move on, at least, in a healthy way. So, he instead ends up going back to do the one thing he’s good at, and you never get the idea that he enjoys killing so many people. I feel like his inability to fully grieve and heal is beginning to manifest itself in harmful ways – which I believe is him having a death wish – and the last act of this film touches on it, at least that’s how I read it. I’d love to see if it follows through on that in a third film, or go in a different direction. I find John Wick to be a genuinely interesting, and thoughtful character, one that is drenched in melancholy, something very uncommon with typical action movie heroes, and Keanu Reeves is undeniably perfect in the role, often conveying so much with so little. He is just the best.
I knew I was going to love this movie when it literally opens with a Buster Keaton film being projected on the side of a worn-down building. It immediately sets the unique, and stylized atmosphere of the world, as well as the emphasis on stunt work, and the use of action and character driving the story instead of dialogue. It’s a whirlwind of slapstick carnage, and harmonious headshots, delivered with a deep understanding of cinematic language, and visual storytelling. As much as I have enjoyed many recent American action movies, I feel like John Wick is almost single-handedly bringing a sense of artistry that finally shows off not only what we can bring to the table, but also allows us to stand alongside the best that foreign action films have to offer. I mean, come on, it makes sign language look badass! If, for some bizarre reason, you’re still not convinced, listen up – it has a scene involving a pencil and a dude’s head that rivals the “magic trick” moment from The Dark Knight. Now, go see it so we can get Chapter 3 going.