In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for. However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking. Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen. It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).
I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime. This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be. Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.
I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes. In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife. In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name. It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull. This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.
This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema. Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom. John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache. Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent. The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.