Thursday Rethink: John Wick: Chapter 2 Is a Disappointment

When the brothers disagree, it’s often worth taking another look at the film that generates that disagreement. Aren reviewed John Wick: Chapter 2 back in February and Anders just caught up with it on video this week and thinks that the praise heaped on it by Aren and the critics who gave it a 90% fresh on RottenTomatoes is a bit much.

I want to start by noting that Keanu Reeves is a most unlikely movie star, but he keeps on surprising over the years. There are very few stars who can claim as many iconic roles in their career, as Reeves arguable can. Utilizing his muted emotional affect, regular guy charm, and athleticism in films such as Point Break,  Speed, The Matrix films, and now John Wick, Keanu Reeves has made his mark on Hollywood. The first John Wick was a breath of fresh air when it first came out. It was ferocious, focused, and the propulsive violence showed that there was still some life in Hollywood action films. I dug it quite a bit. Much of the film’s appeal stemmed from Reeves himself, as the widowed hitman (almost playing up the “sad Keanu” meme-version of himself) out for revenge, and from the film’s action sequences, which eschewed contemporary shaky-cam disorientation for a clarity and cause-and-effect mode that owed more to Hong Kong action cinema than post-Michael Bay intensified continuity.

It’s too bad that the sequel isn’t as intriguing. In many ways it feels like director Chad Stahelski misread what were the best parts of the initial film, but it’s possibly also a case that the smaller, more focused first film had exhausted the potential of the series. Either way, I’m slightly baffled by the very high praise this film got for following reasons.

The Action Scenes are Less Thrilling, and More Mechanical

The first film was rightly praised for being different that the majority of action films in Hollywood. Former stuntman Stahelski made a film that placed a priority on clarity of action, emphasizing the almost dance-like possibilities of something like a shoot out. Aren even wrote a piece delving into the details of how John Wick works its magic. Sadly, much of that magic is gone in the second film. Sure, the action style is still of a piece with the first film, clearly shot, at times inventive, but in trying to outdo the set pieces from the first this new one runs out of steam. Action doesn’t necessarily need “motivation,” and can be the object of a film itself, but without a strong central thread driving the film (one more “one last job” can’t be the same as the first) the action seems more gratuitous. For instance, in the battle in the catacombs in Rome draws out the sequence where John Wick satisfies his commitment to Santino beyond what was necessary (perhaps appropriately, it’s the scene that is the darkest and least in line with the rest of the action in the film). In contrast to the dance-like possibilities of action the first film toyed with, the action here often seems mechanical. This is in part the fact that it seems over-choreographed rather than natural. Aren remarked on the first film’s “grace and clarity,” but this film has clarity without grace. I was never in doubt that Reeves’ Wick would triumph. Perhaps the effect was to give it a cartoonish edge, but the film never quite seems to cross into that realm, at least not in the action scenes. Rather it plays like watching someone play a video game.

The Film Doesn’t Nail the Right Tonal Balance

A lot of people seem to think that John Wick: Chapter 2 is really funny. But I found it to be uneven. There is some fun bits in the film, such as Peter Serafinowicz’s gun sommelier. At its best, the film shows the possibilities of action movie inventiveness, creating an ostensible raison d’être for the action scenes. But in other sequences the film doubles down on the hoariest cliches of the genre, with people gravely intoning “He’s here” into microphones. Since the film is meant to be a genuinely thrilling actioner, it can’t ever fully embrace such tired tropes without feeling tired itself. At times the film seems to aim for self-aware meta-fiction, such as casting Laurence Fishburne opposite Keanu for a Matrix reunion, and at other times seems to be just going for lazy choices. A projection of Buster Keaton on the side of a building at the start of the film is heavy handed rather than clever. Kill Bill this is not, and so the humour is never properly integrated in the film as a whole. It’s a shame, since Keanu has always played a great straight man, but aside from Ian McShane’s Winston, most of the performers seem a little lost.

The Worldbuilding is Weak

Many have praised the deepening of the worldbuilding in Chapter 2, but to me the arcane rules of the assassin world and “everyone is an assassin” conceit don’t land. The first John Wick gave just enough of this stuff to make it clear this wasn’t meant to be our world, but the second labours too much in straining to create a “John Wick universe,” without ever really delving into what that might mean. It’s hard for me to believe in this world actually operating, even on its own principles. It’s all vague, “cool” ideas and images that don’t contribute to a whole. Again, it’s more like a video game scenario than an actual world one could imagine exploring. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a simulacrum of worldbuilding. Take the hall of mirrors sequence. Is it a reference to Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai? Perhaps,but devoid the meaning that image carries with it, the sequence simply becomes an empty signifier. Again, pastiche can be done well. But for instance, in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Inglourious Basterds the meaning is either addressed or subverted. Here it’s just allowed to dangle. An “Easter egg” and that’s it.

In the end I think I found the film so frustrating because it skirts with greatness. Unlike many Hollywood action excesses, I felt like this one never goes all in on its obsessions like the films of Michael Bay or Quentin Tarantino, nor does it actually coalesce into a clear, compelling mythology of its own. Instead, John Wick: Chapter 2 skirts with pastiche while offering a veneer of world building.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, USA)

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero, Peter Serafinowicz, and Ian McShane.