For better or worse, movies have been fetishizing violence for a long time. When Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were released in the late 1960s, viewers were startled by the bluntness of the violence: shockingly, there was blood pouring out of all those bullet holes. Today, such stuff feels remarkably tame: those of us who consume a fair amount of modern movies and TV shows have almost certainly seen more than our fill of point-blank shootings, bludgeoning, torture and dismemberment. Given how commonplace such things have become, filmmakers have to cut through the noise by finding ways to make their particular batch of violence more stylish, more graphic, or both: to make headshots feel like money shots.
Chad Stahelski's 2014 film John Wick is certainly one of the more memorable recent mainstream presentations of stylized violence, anchoring a host of slick-as-hell action sequences with a lean, mean revenge story and an undeniably compelling Keanu Reeves performance. Naturally, John Wick: Chapter 2 has to find a way to up the stakes. Is it more violent than the first? Yes, but it goes further than that: it doesn't merely offer fetishized violence, but fetishizes nearly every single aspect of an elaborate fictional culture of violence. It's a cinematic love song to the rituals and codes of professional assassins, and – in more ways than one – a celebration of order amidst chaos.
The first indication of what sort of movie John Wick: Chapter 2 is arrives at the end of the pre-credits sequences, after Wick has slaughtered an army of nameless goons who are foolishing attempting to stop him from retrieving his old car. Wick marches into the office of the head goon (Peter Stormare, Fargo) and sees a bottle of alcohol and two glasses sitting on the desk. Wick pours two drinks, hands one to Stormare, raises a glass and makes a simple offer: “Peace?” Stormare accepts, and they go their separate ways.
These are violent men, but they are also professionals who know when to quit. It's the first of many moments in the film that observe ruthless killers adhering to a rigid personal code, and the movie does its level best to make this restraint seem as badass as all the bloodshed. Eventually, Wick finds himself in conflict with respected assassin Cassian (Common, Selma), and the two men enthusiastically jump into an elaborate fight/chase sequence. However, when their chase accidentally leads them into an official “neutral zone,” they stop, sit down, catch their breath, buy each other a drink and mutually promise to make the other party's eventual death as quick and painless as possible. You can almost hear the filmmakers shouting, “HOW COOL ARE THESE PISTOL-PACKING WAY OF THE SAMURAI M-----F---ERS!?”
The preparation of an assassination is granted a great deal of respect, too, as the many steps Wick must take before he goes Full Wick are presented with the reverence of religious rituals. We watch him buy a suit (and make precise specifications about every single detail from the buttons to the inseam), purchase a handful of weapons (each one designed for a very specific type of killing), make reservations at various hotels (both Ian McShane's swanky New York establishment from the first film and an Italian location run by Franco Nero) and negotiate with a hobo king (a cheerfully over-the-top Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) who has his own hilariously complex network of carrier pigeons and beggar spies.
Even so, the only person in the movie who doesn't consistently respect The Way of Doing Things is Wick himself. Indeed, the whole plot is set in motion thanks to Wick's defiance of an established rule. Years ago, he gave a man named Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, Effie Gray) a “marker”: a signifier of a blood oath that obliges Wick to perform a job at Santino's request at any time. However, when Santino shows up on Wick's doorstep to cash in his favor, Wick refuses to accept the job. Santino responds by blowing up Wick's house. After briefly reconsidering the matter, Wick takes the assignment.
This sequence of events initially seems to suggest that John Wick is sort of an idiot. He knows the rules of the code he lives by, and knows that turning down a marker comes with serious consequences. So why the ultimately pointless act of defiance? The film hints that his motivations may be psychological: he claims he doesn't want to be an assassin anymore, and will only return to his profession if he's forced into it. Thus, he makes Santino force him. However, as the film progresses, the darker truth becomes clear: deep down, Wick really, really likes killing people. The vengeful soulfulness of the first film slowly disappears, replaced by something resembling pure bloodlust. By the climax, we seem to be in the throes of a violent fever dream: a kaleidoscopic display of carnage in a house of mirrors dubbed “Reflections of the Soul.”
Is the film a morally objectionable display of violence for its own sake? Sure, maybe. But it's also undeniably entertaining, and goes so far over the top that one begins to see the elegantly-staged murder as a form of abstract art rather than anything that has anything to do with the real world (where personal codes are violated with regularity, and where order quickly buckles under the weight of chaos). It's a more European, surreal, vaguely pretentious affair than its predecessor (I enjoyed a lot of the more arthouse-y flourishes, but your mileage may vary), but it's still pretty clearly “a John Wick movie.” For better or worse, it gives both Wick and the audience exactly what they want.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2017