I know well that I'm not alone in thinking John Wick is one of the better action films of the last few years. Between the uniqueness of the world building (i.e. the gold coins, the Continental Hotel and its rules, et cetera), the stylistic brutality, and the obvious amount of work put in to develop its protagonist's distinct fighting/shooting style, the film clearly distinguished itself from more run-of-the-mill fare.
Quite unsurprisingly then, I am also one of the many movie fans looking forward to returning to this unique world of distinct action sequences with the upcoming sequel John Wick: Chapter 2.
But for all my anticipatory excitement, I'm also a wee bit skeptical about its success — in a certain, specific way — because the sequel simply will not be able to repeat what was, in my opinion, the single most compelling part of the original: introducing John Wick.
No No No, His Real Introduction
You may be thinking the character was first announced at the opening of the movie, when he was shown hurt and bleeding, but he actually wasn't. You might assume then that his initial presentation occurred just after, while in his home as he mourned the loss of his wife, but it can't be found there either. It didn't happen when he buried her; it didn't happen after he received the puppy she left for him; it didn't happen while aggressively driving his spectacular Mustang around the airport runway.
Likewise, John Wick wasn't introduced while facing down a Russian punk over that car, nor when the punk and his thugs broke into his house. This didn't occur when they beat him down, or when they stole his car. It didn't happen when they killed his dog.
As a matter of fact, it's not even John Wick himself who gives the audience their first taste of who he is. Rather, it's John Leguizamo's character of Aurelio who gets the honors with this precise moment, just after that Russian punk brings in the car he stole into Aurelio's chop shop:
Our first glimpse of John Wick's true character comes at around the 17-minute mark of the film in the form of that look of dread, which then gives way to recognition, which then gives way to panic — all in the span of about four seconds. It's in the knowing, terrified tone Aurelio uses when he asks: "Where did you get that car?" It's in how this character viscerally responds to the very idea of John Wick.
But as I said above, even this is just a taste, a hint of what's coming. No, John Wick's full introduction doesn't occur until about 10 minutes later, and is once again delivered through the words and actions of a different character entirely.
To Know John, You Have To Ask Someone Else
It turns out that the Russian punk is the son of the biggest crime boss in New York City, a man named Viggo that no one would cross under any circumstances (almost). Because you see, after Aurelio realizes whose car was stolen, he punches the punk square in the face. Sure enough, this unmistakably formidable mob boss calls Aurelio right after, wanting answers for this (almost) unfathomable action:
Here again, the audience gets another sip of John Wick, but without any John Wick in sight. His character is once more ever so subtly revealed by the slow turn of Viggo, that look of deeply regrettable awareness from this criminal titan, and his simple "Oh."
Then, in indelible fashion, Viggo goes on to finally illuminate the character fully, as he explains to his son the utter doom that the boy has just brought down on himself (and probably their entire organization as well, for all intents and purposes):
This speech, plus John's both literal and figurative descent into his basement to unearth his former self with a sledgehammer, is what constitutes the actual introduction of the character; it's the moment the audience really sees who he is for the first time. It took just over 26 minutes, but we finally met John Wick.
Working With The Strengths Of Your Actor
OK, now I have to say something that's inescapably going to sound like an insult, even though that's not at all what I'm trying to do here: Keanu Reeves is not a very expressive actor; this is just kinda the case.
Now, many people have elected to make fun of him for this, while some have instead pointed out why it's actually an asset, but I'm not going to focus on either take here. No, my purpose in pointing it out is simply to say the way in which the filmmakers chose to introduce us to John Wick worked incredibly well, given the particular actor they cast to play him.
Again, what makes the character so powerful and memorable is not him; it's how everyone else reacts to him. So it's not on Keanu to express to the audience what a freaking badass John Wick is, the other actors do it for him. Here's another example of this, when a local sheriff stops by his home after John has killed like a dozen or so intruders:
And here's yet another example, taken from a scene where John needs to breach a tightly secured club in order to get after his target, and must first deal with an approximately seven-foot-tall doorman to accomplish this:
John Wick: [points a gun at Francis' head] Hello, Francis.
Francis: Mr. Wick
John Wick: [in Russian] You've lost weight.
Francis: [in Russian] Over sixty pounds.
John Wick: [in Russian] Yeah? Impressive.
Francis: Are you here on business, sir?
John Wick: Afraid so, Francis.
John Wick: Why don't you take the night off?
Francis: Thank you, sir.
Combine these moments with the work of Leguizamo as Aurelio and Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist as Viggo, and you find that every important piece of the John Wick mystique, save for the action sequences themselves (which Reeves busts his ass in, to be fair), was derived from lines written for other characters, and thus the acting of other performers. As my final — and most revelatory — example, here's a scene in which Nyqvist brings even more out of John Wick over the phone, while Keanu literally says and does nothing at all:
Consequently, now that you have all the emoting and reacting being done by everyone else, Keanu's non-expressive quality stops being a hindrance and starts becoming an advantage. In short, the more blank Reeves is in the role, the scarier Wick becomes, for the same reason the shark in Jaws was at its most terrifying when we couldn't see it:
The Curtain Only Raises For the First Time Once
Look, again, I'm not trying to preemptively suck away your excitement for the sequel; I'm sure, at the very worst, it'll be just fine — the action will almost certainly be both damn good and distinct yet again, while the unique world built will assuredly be respected. And most importantly, John Wick will still be a total, absolute badass.
It's just that now you know all this, and you've already seen it presented in that uniquely powerful, deeply memorable, and highly effective way — the bullet has left the chamber, and it's not coming back for round two. And sometimes what we're responding to most in a movie isn't necessarily what we're seeing, or even what we find ourselves aware of. Sometimes the best part sneaks up on you unexpectedly, and then swiftly delivers something you never saw coming, in a way that can never happen again.
Kinda like this movie character I once watched.
So what about John Wick 2 are you most interested in?