The explosively charged neo-noir thriller John Wick doesn't just require the suspension of belief. The film encourages audiences to grab believability by the scruff of the neck, roundhouse kick it in the face and launch it off the top floor of a thousand-foot-tall skyscraper.
Produced under the radar, Keanu Reeves's return to ass-kicking form was a surprise hit for a host of reasons, but a reliance on realism wasn’t among them. Neither should it be. John Wick is both brazen and calculated in its approach to action. Its brutish honesty, captured in wide-open shots that allow audiences unfettered view of Reeve's motion, is the main ingredient in an endlessly fun movie that proves every once in a while you can judge a book by its cover.
Thanks to its predecessor’s success, sequel John Wick: Chapter 2 has nothing to prove. Chapter 2 doesn’t need a complex plot, over-the-top effects or gratuitous cameos – just a steady aim and a sure squeeze of the trigger. Building on the template established by the first movie, the sequel is, if anything, even more elegantly vicious, a ballistic upgrade for an already deadly weapon.
To examine how John Wick set the stage for the spectacular Chapter 2, we’ve compiled a forensics report on the formula for an assassin’s success.
All a leading action hero really needs is a reason to ruthlessly demolish volumes of nameless henchmen without a hint of remorse. There aren't many excuses better than John Wick's — his puppy, Daisy, essentially the living memory of Wick’s late wife, was killed by Russian gangster Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). Chapter 2 doesn’t establish a new motivation to supplant the memory of Daisy; rather, it begins just days after the conclusion of the first film, drafting off the emotional currents of the original.
The callow act of canicide that kicks John Wick into motion justifies everything that follows, in both films. Wick’s emotional reaction adds resonance to his physical actions, the severity of which are effectively predicted in a hyperbolic, foreboding and brilliantly melodramatic monologue by Russian mafia boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). So that we have no doubts about power of our tailored hero, Viggo lays them to rest by explaining who John Wick really is:
"John Wick wasn’t exactly the boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fucking boogeyman. John is a man of focus, commitment, sheer will... something you know very little about. I once saw him kill three men in a bar... with a pencil, with a fucking pencil."
A fucking pencil! It's absolutely ridiculous in the most entertaining way, a narrative fit for Greek mythology, every syllable the building block to a borderline satirical persona, framing the future events in a self-contained world of make-believe. Thank God we're on Wick’s side.
We’re not required to imagine Wick’s proficiency as Tarasov's speech is illustrated with images of John smashing the concrete floor of his basement with a sledgehammer, revealing a neat selection of firearms and gold coins. A safe won’t do for Wick; he’s buried these essential tools from his long-lost trade under the sort of cover that would be impenetrable for most people.
This isn’t so much a sign that Wick's retirement from killing is finally over as a reveal that his true nature, even when buried as conclusively as a mob victim, can’t be suppressed.
John Wick disregards realism and authenticity, and its fights dare audiences to keep up. The stylish action sequences are like a shot of adrenaline into the jugular, exploding with energy and expertly choreographed — an expression of first time directing duo Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's deep history as stunt coordinators, and Shahelski’s years of cooperation with Reeves as the actor’s stunt double. (Stahelski returned to direct Chapter 2.)
Stahelki and Reeves first paired for The Matrix, under the tutorial eye of Hong Kong action master Yuen Woo-Ping. Both John Wick films act on inspiration from Hong Kong action cinema, particularly the time-consuming and physically-exacting style cinematography that shows as much of the actors as possible at all times. John Wick and Chapter 2 decline to take refuge in quick cuts and shadowy action – we see everything Wick does, and are left to wonder how.
So while gangster Tarasov's extravagant introduction sets an almost impossible expectation for the character, John Wick delivers in stunning fashion. When 12 hitmen are sent to his house to kill him, the reactivated assassin brutally dispatches the trained killers with expert poise, an almost superhuman level of agility and a tenacious and highly honed survival instinct. All within the time it takes most of us to make a cheese sandwich.
In contrast to Wick's decisiveness in combat, his personable side is revealed in moments with a police officer who arrives to investigate a noise complaint. After seeing a dead body and noticing Wick's nonchalance, the officer leaves him to it, indicating Wick's familiar ties with the authorities.
Without doubt, the standout scene in John Wick comes when Wick attempts to assassinate Iosef in the luxurious nightclub, the Red Circle. The battle exhibits an Oldboy-like flow of choreographed excellence, the eruption of rapid-fire gunshots drowned out by the heavy bass of the neon-drenched party, rendering the brutality of Wick's rampage both ultraviolet and ultra-violent.
John Wick was rightfully christened Keanu Reeves's comeback. The 52-year-old, who allegedly did most of his stunts himself, effortlessly balances raw emotional ferocity, physicality and stoic charisma in the leading role. However, John Wick is far from a one-hit pony.
Though the plot is simple, Wick's world is filled out with memorable quirks. A special waste-disposal company removes dead henchmen, and there's a hotel specifically for the underworld, with competing killers bound by strict rules within its walls. In John Wick, the peculiarities of the industry of assassins are compelling and comprehensive. This environment is delightfully expanded upon in Chapter 2.
The action in the burgeoning John Wick series is the most obvious selling point, but the depth of the world-building in John Wick becomes the secret factor for success in Chapter 2. Not just anyone can create the balletic brutality seen in the 2014 original, but preserving and amplifying the physical while also developing the world's quirks is a major accomplishment.
Set aside the bizarre and coolly funny camaraderie and competition between killers and John Wick would still be a terrific piece of combat wizardry, but ultimately perhaps a minor one. Turning the action movie into an open window on a hidden world of coded negotiations and rigid honor is a stroke of brilliance that elevates every aspect of the series. "Style" in these movies is more than the splashy blasts of color and blood that decorate walls and faces; it is an intrinsic factor that turns a potentially hostile dance of violence into a cunningly alluring dream.