One of the first shots in John Wick Chapter 2 is a sequence from Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy, Seven Chances, projected onto the side of a New York City building. Despite my general distaste for the “referencing culture” that’s come to pervade popular cinema as a way to nod to a film’s influences and create the illusion of the filmmakers being “smart” or “cine-literate,” this homage piqued my interest. I was sure this meant that the film would be taking deliberate cues from Keaton, demonstrating his wondrous physicality and athleticism, his playful approach to framing, editing and choreography, and his daringly original blending of comedy and action.
Unfortunately, John Wick Chapter 2, despite a few brilliant moments, fails to match Keaton’s genius. Not that it really needed to in order to succeed, but I would have liked to see it try a little harder. That’s the films biggest letdown; with that callback, it makes a promise it’s not really intent on or capable of fulfilling.
The original John Wick was hailed as a refreshingly adept example of what’s capable in modern action cinema, while also providing a vehicle to resurrect the flagging career of its underappreciated and underrated star, Keanu Reeves.
And the enthusiasm of its supporters is not ill placed. The original Wick is an impressive display of how bare bones an action movie needs to be in order to effectively thrill, with impressive stunt choreography, momentous pacing, stunning cinematography and a perfectly stoic performance from Reeves. While the praise surrounding the film may be a tad hyperbolic, with a tone suggesting the film merely exceeds the low standards critics and audiences have for many action films, there’s no denying that Wick was a solidly entertaining genre piece. I hope none of that sounds snobbish, because it isn’t meant to be.
The sequel, Chapter 2, represents a doubling down on nearly everything from Wick, its weaknesses as well as its strengths. One of those strengths is the mythology that adds a layer of mystery, gravitas, and depth to the bloody proceedings. Chapter 2 expands on that mythology and it’s what sets the plot in motion.
Shortly after the events of Wick, John Wick (Reeves) retrieves his Mustang, stolen in the first film, in predictably ass-kicking manner, and returns to the normal life he was trying to live after the death of his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), a new unnamed pit-bull companion in tow (don’t worry, the dog lives this time around). But his peace is broken when an old criminal acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), shows up at his front door wanting to cash in on a debt Wick owes him by having our hero complete one last bloody deed. Wick refuses, which turns out to be the wrong move and against the code of the criminal underworld they’re a part of. And so Wick is forced out of retirement yet again, this time not by choice.
The plot thankfully takes a few more interesting turns from there and adds in a few more colorful, if slightly forgettable characters. But in a way, none of that matters. It’s all an excuse to watch Wick find increasingly bloody and resourceful ways of killing faceless bad guys. And it’s a shame the film doesn’t demonstrate some of its protagonist’s brutal inventiveness more often. Despite a few clever concepts behind its action scenes and brief bursts of inspired fight choreography, most of the action (and thus, most of the film) just becomes an indistinct blur of punching, stabbing, and shooting, also an issue in the original.
The problem seems to lie in the direction by Chad Stahelski. It’s an unsurprising trend one notices about directors who don’t start off as directors, that they tend to emphasize and give preference to the aspects of filmmaking they initially entered the industry specializing in. Writers turned directors often put more emphasis on the script and dialogue (Shane Black, Woody Allen, Joss Whedon), cinematographers put more effort into the visuals (Barry Sonnenfeld, Wally Pfister), actor-directors focus more on performance (Clint Eastwood, John Cassavetes), etc.
While this isn’t necessarily a problem – and at times can even yield some wonderful cinematic results – there are times where these elements are deferred to at the expense of the other aspects of filmmaking and to the detriment of the film. Stahelski, co-director with David Leitch of Wick and flying solo on Chapter 2, began his film career as a stunt performer and coordinator, and originally worked with Reeves on the Matrix films. In the case of both Wick films, Stahelski seems too preoccupied with the action scenes, the fight choreography in particular, that he forgets to give them weight and purpose and to keep them fresh. He’s so preoccupied with making a fight scene cool that he fails to see when it might need to be axed outright, like he spent so much time getting the action just right, that he wants to keep every second of it in the film (an understandable, if misguided, desire).
I wonder what Chapter 2 might have looked like with a good thirty minutes trimmed from it, most of that time taken from some of the overlong action sequences. Stahelski seems to have forgotten that these are pulpy action flicks. That’s not an insult; pulp done right is sublime. But without a more complex narrative backbone, which admittedly these films lack, pulp is best left on the shorter side. Look at Roger Corman, who famously had a rule to keep his gloriously and proudly low-budget schlock at runtimes that were ninety minutes or under. Chapter 2 might have benefitted from a leaner run time and tighter plotting. It might have been shorter, but would almost certainly have been sweeter.
And so we return to Keaton. There is one moment that undoubtedly rivals the master’s genius that comes in the middle of the film’s most pulse pounding and exciting sequence. It takes place in the New York subway where Wick is being pursued by a rival assassin, Cassian (a delightfully badass Common). I won’t spoil the concept completely, but let’s just say it involves the two master killing machines trying to avoid detection, with silenced pistols, in the middle of a crowded subway platform. It’s one of most inventive and funniest moments I’ve ever seen in an action movie. I’m honestly still reeling from its comic ingenuity and unique approach to action filmmaking. If the rest of the movie had demonstrated this type of cleverness and desire to explore what’s possible in the genre, I might have considered John Wick Chapter 2 one of the greatest action films of all time. Instead, this sequence and the opening homage to Keaton, demonstrate only what could have been.