John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) by Chad Stahelski
Review by Andrew Swafford
Can we talk about violence in the John Wick series?
Seriously, can we? Only three years old, this franchise has already become a strange sacred cow for cinephiles who dig genre fiction.
Just about any movie fan will tell you that 2014’s John Wick is a tight, well-crafted action film that “knows what it is,” not taking itself too seriously with heavy-handed thematics or bogging itself down with an overly complex story. The same critical consensus seems to hold true for the sequel, which is already overperforming the original in ticket sales as well as praise from critics, whose fondness for Keanu’s loveably minimalist genre exercise has grown with each passing year. It’s about a guy avenging the death of his puppy! The conceit is as sympathetic as it is ridiculous, allowing us to give ourselves over, guilt-free, to the well-crafted carnage that follows.
And the quality of craft in these films is indisputable. The fact that they are directed, produced, and led by veterans of stunt-doubling and fight choreography couldn’t be more apparent--the physicality here has an unobscured clarity unmatched by anything else the industry has to offer. Even in a strobe-lit rave, silhouette-filled catacombs, or a mind-bending hall of mirrors, comprehensibility is always priority-one. The vibrant neon aesthetic of both films is undeniably eye-catching too, which also stands in contrast to the dearth of color in the current “dark-and-gritty” action landscape. All of these cinematic qualities have, of course, been well-articulated many times over by much better writers than I.
Even so, I am bummed out by the critical conversation surrounding these movies.
I have a radical idea: What if the John Wick series isn’t as mindless as it’s made out to be? And even if it is, what if we didn’t selectively apply the “shut your brain off” mentality when it helps us enjoy a film we’re already predisposed to like? Film critics hate this line of reasoning when it is used to defend cynical works of nostalgia-exploitation, so why does the critical conversation around this series seem to hand-wave any potential nuance with “oh who cares, it’s awesome!” This may seem unbearably obvious, but a piece of high-octane action entertainment is worthy of critical analysis, too. Putting John Wick under a microscope may help us to appreciate it on a greater level, or it may help us to see its flaws--either way, not doing so seems cowardly.
Here’s my central observation/question about both chapters of John Wick. On the one hand, these are movies that, as stated, “know what they are” and invite the audience to embrace the absurdity of cinematic mass-murder revenge fantasies; on the other hand, they are hyper-realistic depictions of violence.
The filmmakers go to great length to achieve a kind of real-world tactility: John Wick has to reload when he runs out of ammo; he has to shoot his opponents in the head to avoid the bulletproof material that lines their clothing; every gunshot makes a soft Michael-Mann-esque pop rather than a bombastic explosion of studio magic; the blood splatter stains clothing and skin for the entire runtime of each film; the framing and editing never obscure the action to fake stunts or hand-to-hand combat with shakycam or quick cuts; an expansively bureaucratic underworld of assassins has even been imagined (and broadened, in Chapter 2) to explain how violence on this scale is able to exist without legal consequences. The result: when Wick makes his final headshot in the climax of Chapter 2, my head forcibly whips back in my comfortable movie theater seat.
Wick’s invincibility is cartoonish, of course, but painstaking effort has obviously been taken to make sure each individual act of violence feels believable. For me, there’s a disconnect here with the preexisting (valid) assessment that “it knows what it is.” A killing spree this meticulously realized surely can’t be dismissed as merely symptomatic of silly genre convention--especially since most films that this series is riffing on are perfectly fine playing with impossibilities. They are often described as power fantasies--but in the John Wick series, is the emphasis on the power or the fantasy? Can it have it both ways?
I think it’s a question worth asking because these aren’t just violent movies--they’re movies about violence. Keanu’s John Wick has lived a life of violence but has repressed it for a quieter life, literally and metaphorically burying his weapons under the thick concrete floor of his modern domestic space. In a moment of grief-stricken weakness, he decides to indulge in one small act of vengeance that escalates into another and another and another, sometimes to eliminate obstacles in the way of his target and others to cover his tracks on the way to a once-again peaceful life. Wick plays the assassin only reluctantly, but by the second film, Wick’s past has completely resurfaced, and he becomes a slave to the demands of others in order to earn a freedom that is always feels tantalizingly just out of reach. On one level, this series is a classic Macbethian story about how violence begets violence in a cyclical fashion, how blood never truly washes off one’s hands, and how the past never stays quite dead enough. This is a thematic undercurrent we can’t see if we’re just reveling in how great the gunplay choreography is.
Likewise, we can’t see potential problems with the way it’s presented to us. Though there’s a deep sadness to John Wick’s personal story, Stahelski’s camera does very little to capture his subjective experience of guilt, grief, and internal conflict with personal demons. Everything is about clarity of action, which means objectivity. So when John Wick mows down dozens of people in a nightclub, we are made to feel nothing about each individual act of murder-- a sum total 76 people in the first film. (Not to mention the possible collateral damage from every bullet that misses John Wick--basically all of them.)
To quote Cinematary’s recent guest, Sydney Taylor (Ep. #127), in her newest Letterboxd review of the first film:
“i feel like i am supposed to be glad that he unleashed this awful piece of his soul back on the world, and i'm supposed to be glad he's "back", i'm supposed to be thrilled that after years of suppressing his violent urges he's let his rottenness become exposed again. i should be ok with him killing people because they're bad guys, but how are they any worse than john wick?”
The only difference I can see is that the victims are, almost without exception, entirely nameless and faceless. They are rarely even given time to pose a threat before being killed--they are merely members of the opposition party who happen to be caught in Wick's warpath. The death count of Chapter 2 more than doubles the original film, and they feel even more nameless/faceless this time around. Certain moments of the sequel (the catacombs sequence especially) adopt the over-the-shoulder visual style of 3rd-person shooter games, and no-names killed by Wick feel similarly video-game-like, just non-playable-bullet-fodder programmed to be picked off.
Last summer, I wrote an essay praising Only God Forgives and its purposeful, selective use of provocative violence to convey a sense of Old Testament morality. Here, violence feels senseless and indiscriminate, the problematic nature of which only gets amplified by how glorifyingly well-crafted it all is. That would be fine (I guess) if Wick’s own reluctance wasn’t woven into the fabric of the narrative, but it is--and John Wick’s unflinching clarity of action, appreciated for its absence in other genre efforts, betrays its own pre-established emotional core.
The film’s internal doublethink might serve a purpose. The soundtrack of the first John Wick can illuminate this for us: the song “Killing Strangers” by Marilyn Manson plays over multiple montages in this film, and its intro guitar riff gets a reprise when we first see Keanu in Chapter 2. Manson, famously accused of being complicit in the Columbine massacre just for making angry music, claims the track is inspired by his own father’s trauma-inducing experiences with violence in the Vietnam war, and Shaun Tandon writes that the song is Manson “once more belittl[ing] society for a selective condemnation of violence, singing, ‘We're killing strangers, so we don't kill the ones that we love.’” I’m not a Manson fan myself and was initially turned off by the cue, but there’s no denying that it fits thematically with the film. Making this track John Wick’s de facto theme song raises substantial questions about how we see Wick (are we selectively approving of murder just because it’s committed by our protagonist?) as well as how we see ourselves (are we complicit in the perpetuation of violent culture just for unquestionably watching something like this?).
The question can be put more simply, though: are we meant to like John Wick? Lip service is paid in both films to the idea that we aren’t, with assumed villains questioning John’s assumed virtue--one notable example is the line “I think you’re addicted to [killing]” in Chapter 2’s unbelievably beautiful hall-of-mirrors sequence (worthy of an essay-length piece all its own). That sequence specifically highlights my previous concern: I think there’s a valid reading of Wick as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the dazzling way he’s captured on film suggests otherwise.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, our role as watchers of violence is challenged moreso than in the first. While the first film teased us in the margins with glimpses of a comically polite bureaucracy of bougie killers, its sequel pulls back the curtain a little farther to show how expansive this system really is. New York’s homeless community is in on it. The busking violinists in subway stations are in on it. Mothers pushing their babies in strollers are in on it. A wonderfully evocative scene in a public park shows us an entire crowd of people staring at Wick with knowing intensity. We’re left to ponder the question of how much of this is staged to freak John out, but the effect is the same: in this world, murderous violence seems to have been completely normalized to the point of becoming invisible. To quote David Byrne: “We dress like students / we dress like housewives / wearing a suit and a tie.” The killers are us--whether we pull the trigger or watch it happen.
I don’t know how much of this reading is legitimate and how much of it is personal projection, but I feel like it’s a discussion not enough people are having. Yes, these movies are balletic and immaculately captured on film, but they’re also fascinating--if imperfect--from just about every other angle. Check out Cinematary’s upcoming episode (#131) on both films and send us some mail to continue the conversation.