Length: 122 mins
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Dir.: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne
Sequels are a tricky thing to get right. To borrow from High Fidelity for a moment, sequels are like the second track on a mix-tape. You remember that line?
“You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch – but you don’t want to blow your load – so you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”
What is true for mix-tapes is also true of film franchises – and John Wick certainly kicked off with a killer.
The first movie back in 2014/15 was something of a surprise hit – mostly because it had no marketing campaign to speak of. By virtue of being one of the coolest action movies in recent years, the film performed exceptionally well – making $89 million worldwide on a budget of $20 million. With a profit margin like that, it wasn’t long before the studio started thinking about a sequel.
Part of the charm of John Wick is that it was clearly a stuntman’s movie, if that makes sense. Both the directors – Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – have extensive stunt choreography backgrounds and it shows – but this is in no way a bad thing. On the contrary, the uncomplicated cinematography, meticulously thought-out set pieces and the emphasis on action over story was actually really refreshing. Jonathan Eusebio – the fight choreographer behind The Avengers, 300, and The Bourne Ultimatum (to name just a few) – developed a fighting style for the movie that is fairly novel for action protagonists. Even the bizarre but devastatingly effective way that Wick handles a gun (utilising the Central Axis Relock stance, for all you gun nerds out there) feels unique. The result was a fresh and gripping action movie that felt effortlessly cool and fresh.
Can I take a moment to talk about Keanu Reeves? I’m a big fan of his, but I do acknowledge that he isn’t the most… emotive of thespians. There is little doubt in my mind, though, that mild mannered Keanu is one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood these days. Way before the movie came out, footage surfaced of him in training for the sequel and it’s actually incredibly impressive. He performs all of his own stunts in both movies (or, at least, most of them) – and given that some of the set pieces are remarkably complicated, that’s really quite impressive – and his dedication to the role is to be commended. I can’t help but feel that Reeves missed out on a shining career as a stuntman.
Getting back to the meat of the review, the problem with the film focusing so heavily on action at the expense of narrative or character is that there is no where you can really go from there. The only recourse that the sequel had was to make everything bigger. More guys for Wick to fight, more guns for him to shoot, and increasingly elaborate but equally impractical locations to do it in. And it’s awesome. But the other elements of the movie just aren’t refined enough to hide the fact that we’ve seen him do all of this before.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t an attempt to elaborate on the elements of the first movie. It’s just that in attempting to flesh out the backstory of this world, the movie becomes infinitely less intriguing. The first film seemed to take an almost perverse pleasure in not explaining anything – and it worked really well. Assassins, gold coins, the Continental hotel – none of these were explained because it wasn’t necessary for us to know. The sequel, by contrast, occasionally gets bogged down in exposition and shows us far more of this world than we needed to see. The loose association of contract killers becomes a legit global organisation, with thousands of assassins in its employ. The Continental goes from an ostensibly normal hotel with hidden rooms where highly trained murderers can cut loose and shoot the shit, to a chain of hotels that have a weirdly in-depth role in the administration of contracts and blood oaths. We even meet the guy who makes the gold coins for some reason. All of this comes across more like contrived filler than meaningful elaboration.
It’s also strange that the sequel to a movie that had an almost laughably simple premise can have such an undisciplined narrative. There are a lot of unnecessary scenes that serve only to pad out the run-time. For example, while the Laurence Fishburne cameo is a nice little The Matrix reunion (several of the people involved with these movies were also in that trilogy), in terms of narrative, this scene serves next to no purpose beyond that. I’m not even clear what he was supposed to be doing – the character seems to exist entirely to get John Wick from A to B… and that’s just bad writing. And that’s the case with quite a lot of the movie, actually – in the effort to ‘go big or go home’, a lot of the narrative clarity has been lost.
Basically, John Wick was a revenge movie and John Wick Chapter 2 is another revenge movie – and a contrived one at that. It’s still awesome, don’t get me wrong… but it just feels oddly empty and shallow. The sequel should have focused on more meaningful character development – it should have taken the opportunity to flesh out the character of John Wick, or shown us some more in-depth backstory in place of the superficial expansions that we are given here. All the stuff that made the first film such a hit is still there – it’s just that the sequel needed to do a bit more than that to build on this world. There is definitely going to be another John Wick movie – the ending hook makes that patently clear – but I don’t really know where this franchise can logically go now.
If you want to see a decent action movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense, then John Wick 2 is the film for you. If you wanted to see how a great action movie was going to up the ante… you may leave disappointed.