Early in John Wick: Chapter 2, the titular assassin (Keanu Reeves) somberly places his weapons in a box, puts the box in a hole in his basement, and covers it with wet concrete. The action suggests an addict burying his stash, and symbolizes his intent to leave his world of violence and live a new life. Of course, the trailers have promised that there will be killings galore, and indeed the whole point of a John Wick movie is to see the man shoot and stab people, so the gesture rings a little false. Indeed, mere seconds later, before the concrete is even dry, the doorbell rings, summoning John Wick back to the world of headshots and knife fights.
This kind of device is nothing new. Many crime films are about protagonists completing “one last job” before turning to greener and more upright pastures. This often acts as a kind of flimsy rationalization, assuring us of the protagonist’s virtue in the film’s first minutes and giving him a happy ending in the last, allowing the intervening ninety to comfortably toss morality out the window and get to the real fun of seeing the crime committed.
There’s something interesting and a little unusual, then, about how frequently John Wick voices his desire to stop killing, and by how insistently he broods about it, and by how he does so, of course, in between bouts of shooting and stabbing his way through hordes of faceless enemies.
Many lauded the first John Wick as a new classic of the action genre, and while I appreciated its aesthetics to an extent, I found it disappointingly lacking – dramatically hollow and characterized by a troubling amorality. Perhaps worse still, it committed a cardinal sin of its genre by peaking early, putting its best action scene about halfway through its runtime, leaving about forty-five minutes of anticlimax. I was surprised by how much Chapter 2 impressed me, and by the way it turns those bugs into features. It’s a more thoughtful and introspective film than its predecessor, and rightly, it saves its best action scene for last.
In his review of the first film, Joshua Gibbs wrote, “Many action movies rely upon some rather quickly perpetrated crime against the innocent in the first five minutes to justify a lengthy and brutal retribution over the remaining eighty-five minutes. The story rushes through an injustice, but lingers on the subsequent punishment, and the audience is allowed to feel vindicated in cheering on the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of evildoers because a cheap license has been acquired first.” I shared Gibbs’ discomfort at the way John Wick rather uncritically played into this trope by framing its hero’s violent deeds as a righteous crusade for a disproportionate vengeance. The first John Wick’s plot has a simplicity that is almost laughable in its minimalism: Keanu Reeves’ dog is killed and his car is stolen. These being the only two things in his life that he loves (the dog is a final gift from his dying wife), Reeves proceeds to shoot a lot of bad guys in the head while seeking out and killing those responsible. Along the way he loses a couple more things he apparently loves, and as a result, he shoots many more bad guys in the head.
John Wick: Chapter 2 starts with business as usual, though perhaps with a bit more winking self-awareness. John Wick hasn’t got his car back yet, so he begins Chapter 2 by retrieving it from some goons in (what else?) a lengthy and spectacular fight scene, while Peter Stormare (of Fargo and The Big Lebowski fame) trembles in an office and rehearses the legends of how badass John Wick is – the story, for instance, of how he once killed two men with a pencil.
Later on, John Wick does kill two men with a pencil, onscreen, and I found it sickening. In fact, I have seen John Wick: Chapter 2 multiple times, and each time I find myself turning away from the violence onscreen more often. It would be difficult to make a case that this was the filmmakers’ intent. I enjoy many action movies, but I suspect that many in their target audience have a higher tolerance for graphic violence and cruelty than I do, and that what I find repulsive many will find awesome. Action violence, when done well, is essentially exciting, and the choreography in John Wick: Chapter 2 is exceptional, clearly the product of real craft and affection. (Opening on footage from a Buster Keaton film cleverly signposts John Wick: Chapter 2‘s interest in practical stuntwork.) Depiction does not equal endorsement, but it is difficult to deglamorize something that has become as glamorous as action violence. Comparably, James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies have made spies glamorous, but some spy films – Munich, for example, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are so far removed from the antics of 007 and Tom Cruise, and so thoroughly lay bare the soul-crushing ugliness of espionage, that when their credits roll, one cannot help but think, “What sad lives spies must lead.” This does not quite seem to be the intention of Chad Stahelski, director of John Wick: Chapter 2, which is not as rigorous or thorough in its deconstruction as, say, Kingsman: The Secret Service. Nevertheless, if Stahelski does not quite slide into outright condemnation of movie violence, it is clear that at least he wishes to question the morality of his action hero, and he does so with more clarity than David Leitch (his co-director on the first John Wick) did in the recent Atomic Blonde. While Atomic Blonde spends some of its runtime flirting with the idea of undercutting its protagonist’s heroism, it ultimately shallowly reverses any of this exploration, and the result is morally, tonally, and cathartically muddled. In contrast, while John Wick: Chapter 2’s early scenes seem to continue its predecessor’s uncritical portrayal of its “hero,” it charts a downward trajectory for him with surprising clarity, while losing none of its genre’s superficial thrills.
At the end of the film’s opening sequence, John Wick confronts the mob boss from whom he has just retrieved his stolen car. In a gesture to mutual respect and reconciliation, the assassin raises a glass to peace. “Can a man like you know peace?” the boss asks, and he has a point. The hands with which John Wick raises his glass are still bloody and bruised. The prerequisites of the peace he offers are control over the possessions to which he is obsessively attached and disproportionate vengeance against those who would threaten that control. Tellingly, in the very act of taking his car back, John Wick destroys it. “I thought you loved this car,” chides the mechanic Aurelio (John Leguizamo), surveying the wreck. If the first John Wick was a loose take on the Orpheus myth centered on Wick’s grief over the loss of his wife and his subsequent descent into the underworld to (in some sense) reclaim her, John Wick: Chapter 2 is more focused on the part of the story where Orpheus’ insistence on keeping Eurydice is precisely what causes him to lose her forever. (Throughout, John stains white surfaces with blood, whether it’s his own or that of his enemies.) John says that he wants peace, but his repeated, vocal claims to this effect have the false ring of an alcoholic insisting that he doesn’t really want a drink at all. John wants peace, but can only accept it on his own terms, and needs little justification to disrupt it. Upon seeing John’s house, Aurelio remarks, “Peaceful place you got here,” a line so bluntly thematic it would make George Lucas blush.
John’s retirement is short-lived. He buries his weapons, but in the very same beat – in the very same shot, even – a ringing doorbell announces the presence of Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who first appears silhouetted in the doorway of John’s glass house like a nightmare Jungian shadow. There’s some business, it turns out, about blood oaths and whatnot, obliging John to perform any task Santino chooses. Predictably enough, the task involves bloodshed: Santino wants John to kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so he can take her place on some sort of ruling council of assassins. Wisely, Stahelski does not spend more time than necessary on the workings of the hitmen’s society, a kind of Harry Potter-esque parallel world run on gold doubloons, with guns and knives standing in for wands. What matters is that Santino compels John to kill, although he doesn’t want to. “I’m not that guy,” John protests, but Santino insists: “You’re always that guy, John.” When John refuses, Santino destroys his “peaceful” house. As a villain, Santino is most compelling when viewed as an external manifestation of John’s compulsion towards violence, a sort of devil on his shoulder. Like many tempters, he spins a web of rationalizations, repeatedly mentioning that if John had stayed retired, he would have respected it. “No one gets out and comes back,” he says. “Not without repercussions.” John’s crusade for vengeance in the first film is precisely what leads to his predicament in the second. An addiction indulged just once, under extenuating circumstances, is not easily gotten rid of afterwards.
Santino is often surrounded by Greco-Roman art, and John’s mission to kill Gianna takes him to a rave of sorts being conducted in the catacombs of Rome. John Wick: Chapter 2’s mythic overtones are lightly sketched, but there is a certain elegance to the way they are folded into the story, and even if they are not especially profound, per se, they’re certainly not thoughtless. The idea of a rave with colorful flashing lights and thumping electronic music taking place in the ruins of the Eternal City makes for an interesting fusion of high art and low art, the classical and the modern, and it is an intriguing touch that the film’s central sequence takes place here, in a sort of underworld (catacombs being, in a certain sense, where the dead reside). Gianna, resignedly accepting her fate, inquires as to the name of John’s deceased wife – “This woman whose life has ended my own.” Fittingly enough, her name is Helen. Helen Wick’s namesake in antiquity is most famous as the cause of the Trojan War, but she also figures prominently in Goethe’s Faust, and John Wick: Chapter 2 tells us that Wick escaped the assassin’s underworld to be with Helen by striking a deal with Santino – certainly a Faustian bargain.
The film is filled with descent motifs in both imagery and dialogue, recalling not only various Greco-Roman myths but Dante’s Inferno as well. “Safe passage below,” one character tells Wick, showing him to an elevator that will help him escape his enemies. More pointedly still, at another elevator soon after, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, reuniting with his Matrix co-star), surrounded almost to excess by Catholic imagery, says, “Your descent into hell begins here, Mr. Wick.” Yet not all the references are so blatant: the Bowery King’s declaration, “That’s downright upright of you, Mr. Wick,” is a rather subtle nod to the shifts in gravity that occur as Dante and Virgil leave the inferno to enter purgatory.
Dante’s descent into hell doubled as a descent into abysmal self-knowledge, and as John Wick: Chapter 2 goes on, it follows a similar arc. The characters John meets, and his interactions with them, tend to comment, directly or obliquely, on the state of his soul. His indignation at being called upon to kill Gianna stems partly from a desire to give up his life of violence, but there’s also the suggestion that he bristles at having control over his own life wrested from his hands: “Rules,” he spits disdainfully as Winston (Ian McShane) explains blood oaths to him. “Exactly,” Winston replies. “Rules. Without them, we live with the animals.” The name Gianna seems chosen deliberately for its sound as a feminine analogue to John, and the two characters, driven by the desire for autonomy and control, but haunted by the fear of damnation, seem as similar as their names suggest. “I lived my life my way and I will die my way,” says Gianna, choosing to slit her wrists instead of letting Wick kill her – an act of the same kind of defiant self-destruction John will play out in his own way later on.
Throughout, Stahelski pays attention to Helen’s presence (or, even more pointedly, absence) as a redemptive influence in John’s life. Early on, retrieving his car, John finds a birthday card from her in the glove box – a talisman of sorts, and reminder of what he wants to be. He watches a video of her on his cell phone with the reverence of a devotee looking at an icon. In a damning moment, though, when John returns to his hotel room after killing Gianna (and countless henchmen), the cell phone is broken, and the screen is cracked. By the film’s end, sifting through the charred rubble of his home, John only finds a bracelet, which he clutches to his chest. His hold on Helen becomes increasingly tenuous as the violence of his life becomes increasingly taxing and ugly.
While all this could feel like window dressing, as they do in Atomic Blonde – gestures to moral introspection sprinkled atop a story that has no real interest in such things – the final half-hour of John Wick: Chapter 2 commits to the deconstruction of its central figure in ways that are admirable and unique. I mentioned earlier that the film saves its best action sequence for last, and its climax is brilliant for both its choreography and its thematic importance, and the way they gracefully dovetail. John, who ostensibly wanted to give up killing two hours earlier, vengefully stalks Santino through a hall of mirrors, a modern art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” The aesthetics of the sequence are remarkable, using the mirrors to create a disorienting sense of geography, with hellish red and orange LED displays recalling the vivid colors of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter. The sight of a dozen reflections of Keanu Reeves pointing guns at each other highlights the notion that, in many ways, John Wick himself is the villain of this film, reinforcing the idea that Santino is more than anything an embodiment of Wick’s own compulsions. “You know what I think?” Santino taunts. “I think you’re addicted to it… No wife. No life. No home. The vengeance is all you have.” John does not weep over his sin as Dante did, nor does he deny it: he only growls, “You wanted me back. I’m back.”
The hall of mirrors sequence is the film’s most technically accomplished and viscerally satisfying, but the series of quiet scenes that follow cement the film’s commitment to its critique of John Wick. Although John bloodily dispatches of scores of his henchmen, Santino escapes to take refuge in the Continental Hotel, where, according to the rules, no blood can be shed. “Jonathan, just walk away,” Winston advises, but John does not like taking orders from anyone, and he kills Santino by shooting him in the head. John has shot so many people in the head over the film’s two-hour runtime that we should be desensitized, but the scene is constructed in such a way that it provoked gasps from the audience both times I saw it. “What have you done?” Winston demands. “Finished it,” replies John, putting down his gun.
Yet vice is not overcome with vice. One does not defeat alcoholism by drinking. John’s ostensible victory is entirely hollow: by breaking the rules of the hotel in his self-destructive bid for autonomy, he has removed himself from the very system that could protect him, returning to the animalistic brutality of a world without rules. In the parlance of this world, he is rendered “excommunicado,” which sounds almost like a religious term reserved for an apostate. “An eye for an eye,” a rival assassin tells John, and at another point, Santino taunts him, “You think you’re Old Testament?” This is a sequel that indicts its own predecessor, an action movie that indicts its action hero. John’s unrelenting pursuit of vengeance opens him up to the vengeance of others. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Like many trilogies’ second installments, John Wick: Chapter 2 ends on a downbeat note, with the wellbeing of its hero’s body and soul still very much in question. Everyone in the world seems to want to kill John Wick, who seemed so invincible at the film’s start, and now flees, looking frightened, limping away into the sunset, with no end to the cycle of violence in sight.
“Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them,” says John, his last line in the film. “I’ll kill them all.”
“Of course you will,” Winston replies.
Of course he will.