The action movie genre has really undergone an identity crisis recently. With the ever-expanding market for “tentpole” films such as The Avengers movies and The Transformers franchise, action movies have devolved from movies about men with guns into simply just meaning any film that’s just simply exciting. And those films that do still commit to the traditionalist approach of relying simply on guns and explosions, (The Taken Trilogy, Olympus Has Fallen), honestly fail to inspire anything beyond a nine a.m. viewing on FX. Sure there have been some innovatively great films from overseas, The Raid series, for instance, but the days of classic pure action fare like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon appear to be long, long gone. Gone, that is, until last weekend.
John Wick: Chapter Two is a sequel that honestly should never have happened. Yes, it is true that everyone who saw the first film loved it, but that everyone is a very small margin. Comparatively speaking, that is. The first John Wick, a film that came seemingly out of nowhere, had a worldwide gross of 80 million dollars. This is no small feat for a contained, unestablished action film, but not quite greenlight material by modern standards. However, here we are in 2017 with John Wick: Chapter Two. To whichever executive signed this film into being, I thank you. Because it’s indisputable that this film is one of the best action sequels ever put to screen.
The phrase “up the ante” has never truly meant anything until now. If you’re unfamiliar with John Wick as a protagonist, he is a legendary hitman known far in wide in the underground of the assassination circuit as “the boogeyman.” Everyone who’s ever held a gun has heard the tales of John Wick, the man who once “killed three men in a bar with a pencil.” But John Wick doesn’t want to kill people anymore. In fact, he really just wants to retire and sit at home with his dog. But in Chapter Two, some events in his past have caused him to go back into action, one last time. Where the first film was a very small, contained revenge tale, the second is absolutely larger than life. The first installment had John Wick on a tirade against one specific man, whereas this one has him against, well, everyone.
There have been a lot of comparisons around the internet comparing the John Wick franchise to the action movies of the 80’s. And while I see the parallels to one-man army movies like Die Hard and Rambo, the Wick movies bring something completely different to the table. The action in these films is something you very rarely see. It’s called Gun-Fu and it is absolutely electrifying to watch. Rather than just being a few guys standing around screaming and waving guns around like madmen while squibs and explosions go off like crazy, this film orchestrates a perfectly choreographed art of guns and hand to hand combat. The actors trained for months with Japanese martial artists to learn how to pull off this poetic kind of violent dance that you virtually never see in western films. It’s incredulous, impossible, and yet at the same time feels completely grounded in reality. It’s a really mysterious middle ground the filmmakers have created; as you watch John Wick come up with new and creative ways to kill people, you never think, “Yeah, you couldn’t do that.” The other feat of skill they pull off with ease is you never once question his resilience. This really is one man against the world, and yet as he continues to come out of deadly situations alive (but certainly not unscathed), you never once perceive that to be unrealistic or lazy. It’s incredibly hard to pull off, but they really do make it look easy. It is for this effortlessness that they deserve to be praised.
However. What truly elevates this film to greatness is how it excels beyond just being a fun action flick. John Wick: Chapter Two is an absolutely stunning film. Dan Lausten, the Director of Photography, shot this film with an artist’s eye. It’s gorgeous, with visual techniques like chiaroscuro and color imagery that very rarely permeate their way into action films. It truthfully looks at times more like a Nicolas Winding Refn film than a February-release hitman film. The director chose some very interesting angel of death imagery to use in certain scenes that reveals dimension beyond the surface. The film is lit absolutely perfectly, to allow the blood to be visible, but subdued. In other words, it doesn’t just look like some kids playing around with a red glowstick they cut a hole in. Chapter Two has a sequence involving mirrors that is an absolute feat of filmmaking. It’s incredible to watch. The script is somewhat better than the first film’s. My biggest problem with the first film was my perception that the third act was a bit of a letdown, whereas this film did nothing but continue to escalate until the credits. The ancillary characters are all perfect in their roles, save for an actress named Ruby Rose, who plays a mute assassin who simply failed to inspire. She was overcooked, and honestly just annoyed me in every scene she was in. Keanu Reaves, who has never been an Oscar-caliber actor, fits perfectly into the role of John Wick. He, nor anyone else in the film (save for Ruby Rose), never feels campy or ridiculous. I mean, sure, it might be a little over the top. But it works. Oh man, does it work. I honestly believe that John Wick: Chapter Two is an even better film than the first. It has incomparable stuntwork, a magnificent visual eye, a cast of creative characters, and left me absolutely clamoring for a chapter three. Believe the hype. John Wick is back.
All images are from John Wick: Chapter 2, from Summit Entertainment