John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Directed by Chad Stahelski

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John Wick: Chapter 2 follows the same formula that made John Wick work.  We have our rock solid, violently capable but reluctantly violent protagonist who has something taken from him, forcing him back into a life of crime that he has sought to escape.  In the first movie, Wick is still haunted by memories of his deceased wife.  He lives alone in a large home, and one day he receives a puppy as a gift from his wife, organized before her death.  It’s so contrived but it works.  The puppy is adorable, and Keanu Reeves’ pain seems mollified, at least temporarily.  Maybe it’s because Reeves is so good at playing men with icy dispositions who are tortured underneath, but it’s heartwarming to see Wick care for this puppy.  Then a violent Russian thug beats up Wick, steals his car and kills his puppy.  It’s so brutal, but this action serves the movie’s purpose because now we are completely on John Wick’s side, ready to see him kick some ass, which he does.  The rest of the movie is hyper violent, more like a twisted music video than real violence or even video game violence.  It’s all playful, and John Wick becomes more and more mythic, not just to us but to the characters in the film.  They call him the Boogeyman, and his name is enough to frighten even the most hardened criminal.

What’s great about that movie is that we slowly learn who John Wick was in his past life and how dangerous he is.  Many action films have characters who endure unbelievable beatings and violence, and the only explanation is that they are the main character in a big budget action film.  John Wick makes it clear to us that John Wick is superhuman in some way, maybe not literally within the story, but he’s special.

In the sequel, John again tries to stay out of the criminal underworld which he was a part of for so many years.  Then Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) visits him, and reminds John that he is owed a favor.  Apparently to get out of the ‘game’ the first time around, John had to make a blood oath to Santino, but this forces him to do one last favor for the man if called upon.  John turns him down, Santino blows up John’s house, and now John is forced to carry out the favor, which is to kill Santino’s sister in Rome.

It may seem particularly barbaric to kill an innocent women, but the story tells us it’s okay (just like how John’s hyper violence is okay because he’s killing very bad people).  Santino’s sister, Gianna, is also a part of the criminal underworld, and in a brief conversation she alludes to the violence she is willing to commit (to children no less), letting us know that it’s okay for John to kill her.  Then the movie takes one more step to make sure we don’t see John as anything other than heroic by having Gianna kill herself before John can.

Things get worse for our hero when Santino puts out a $7 million contract to kill John Wick, considering him to be a loose end.  This is when we see how deep the criminal underworld runs as seemingly every bystander’s phone buzzes with the contract details.  The woman playing the violin in the subway?  She’s an assassin.  The guy at the coffee bar?  Assassin.  The giant sumo guy? Assassin.

Wick motors his way through these people and begins picking off Santino’s own crew, just like he did to the Russian bad guy in the first movie.  This time Wick comes face to face with Santino in the New York hotel which houses all of these assassins and which has strict rules not to kill each other while staying there.  Wick himself has already demonstrated a willingness to abide by these rules, though he was nearly killed in this same hotel in the first movie, showing that assassins have been known to bend the rules.

Wick strides towards Santino, armed with his pistol, and as Santino seems primed to give some long speech about whatever, Wick shoots him dead.  Because this murder on hotel grounds is basically a mortal sin, he is “excommunicado” from the society, and a hit is ordered on him.  The movie ends with him and his dog (he has a dog) running through New York, given a one hour head start on whoever might be chasing him.  Based on the final scene it seems as though the entire world might be a part of this criminal world and aiming to kill Wick.  For any faults and simplicities and cheesiness in these two movies, I am definitely going to see the third one.

I think what’s most interesting about the John Wick universe is what is established by the end of this movie, with the entire world appearing to be involved with the criminal secret assassin society thing that John himself wants nothing to do with.  It makes his choice to “get out of the game” a lot more interesting considering everyone seems to be involved in the game.

The story within these first two movies are very simple but effective in what they’re trying to do.  They showcase some incredible action, brutal action sure, but glorious, cartoonish, often funny action.  This movie begins with the idea of a man we know nothing about showing up at John’s door and reminding him of the blood oath he made sometime ago.  It’s a silly plot device, but the idea of blood oaths and markers become more interesting when they’re nestles in this world that begins to feel more and more rich, thought out and important.  In other words, the action isn’t just action.  It’s a product of this world.  John Wick now feels more like The Purge in its world-building though it’s probably much more effecting that that movie.  I haven’t seen The Purge, but I don know it establishes a world with its own rules.

When you first see the first John Wick, you imagine that it takes place in our world.  All the secret assassin stuff is hiding in plain view.  But the more you learn, the more ridiculous it seems that this secret world could exist within our own.  This isn’t just because the idea of an assassin society is already absurd but because so much of the movie’s action breaks movie action rules.  Shootouts occur in public, even in heavily-attended events like at a night club or in this case at an Italian gala.  Bullets are fired among huge crowds of people.  This movie doesn’t care that you shouldn’t fire a gun in a situation that could hit an innocent person, and that boldness is a bit refreshing.  But by the end of the movie all of that absurd violence feels more intentional because there is no innocent person in this world.  It may just be that every single person in this universe is some sort of assassin, all willing to play the game.  This makes murder less consequential because everyone has signed a contract, like this is just the newest form of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.

So violence is just a game, and John Wick is very good at that game.  There’s no clear reason for why he’s so skilled, he just is.  His decision (at the start of the first movie) to leave the assassin life behind at first seems like a choice to re-enter normal society.  By the end of this movie we see that his choice to leave this life behind is a rejection of normal society, I suppose.  Wick is an isolated character at the start of both movies, and he’s an even more isolated character now.  Everyone is a potential enemy, not for any personal reasons but just for the money.

So what is the deal with John Wick?  I guess you could say he’s the epitome of everything the assassin society stands for.  He’s the best of the best, everyone knows him, and yet he rejects that kind of life.  I guess that decision underlines what’s wrong with this society, but I don’t think there’s anyone watching this movie who thinks an underground assassin society is a good idea.  So Wick is like Ricky Gervais’ character in The Invention of Lying.  In that movie, Gervais is the only person capable of telling a lie.  This doesn’t make him different from us, but it does make him different from the world he lives in.  This is Wick’s place.  He rejects his world, but he would fit into ours.  His character is that much more interesting with this information because he’s like any number of action heroes (think of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, anyone from any of The Expendables), but with the complexity of self-realization.  His peers too recognize his prowess, and that makes sense considering how violent and efficient he is.  The side characters in a movie like this should be scared of the titular character, but in so many movies they’re not.  Usually they think they can stand up to him, but they’re almost always wrong.  That isn’t to say that the assassins in this movie are afraid to stand up to Wick.  Like other dim-witted criminal characters, they are over confident, but their over confidence feels more natural considering the world we now know they’ve grown up in.  It’s like a bloody version of the American dream.  We live in a society in which a lot of people are convinced they can have it all if they work hard enough, but the truth is that most of us (almost all, probably) won’t have it all.  The numbers just don’t work that way.  So in Wick-verse, everyone is convinced that they’re the best.  They all think they’re John Wick right up until the moment John Wick kills them with a pencil.

So everyone now wants to kill John Wick because it means they will get a ton of money.  Knowing now that so many (if not all) people are aware of Wick, it’s surprising that they haven’t targeted him earlier.  There is a surprising amount of indifferent to Wick, and I don’t know what that says about this world.  Everyone is a bit robotic, like this is more The Matrix than Rambo.

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