Love may be better the second time around but films rarely are. For a couple of generations now, Hollywood has been churning out sequels like someone turned the cinema assembly line up to “Ludicrous Speed” but after “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974), how many of them are even close to being as good, let alone better, than the first film? The movie industry has built a creative and business model that flies in the face of the Law of Diminishing Returns.
It’s gotten to the point where we even get sequels to things that weren’t actually that successful in the first place. “John Wick” (2014) made just $86 million at the box office worldwide. Yes, I know the qualifier “just” should never be applied to $86 million dollars but there have been dozens of blockbusters that made more than that their opening weekend in the United States. For pete’s sake, “Ghostbusters II” (2016) made $215 million worldwide and was considered a disaster that killed the franchise reboot as soon as it began.
But because “John Wick” cost $20 million to produce, it turned a profit. And besides that, the relatively modest audience who saw it seemed to really like it. In a Hollywood desperate for any kind of hit, that means we get “John Wick: Chapter 2” (2017). To paraphrase “The Dark Knight” (2008), however, is it the sequel we need or only the one we deserve?
In the first film, John Wick (Keaneu Reeves) is a former assassin so formidable that other hardened killers reconsider their life choices at merely the mention of his name. John left his life of murder-for-hire behind when he met the woman of his dreams, but the story begins shortly after her death from an illness. All John has left is his memories, an awesome muscle car and the new puppy his wife ordered for him before he passed away.
A random encounter with a seemingly random thug (Alfie Allen) leads to John’s car being stolen and his dog being killed and sets him off on a path of vengeance. And because it turns out that random thug is actually the son of John’s former crime boss employer (Michael Nyqvist), that path turns into a sprint where John kills the equivalent of 1 ½ NFL football teams before one of the most weirdly anticlimactic endings any revenge flick has ever had.
As far as the plot goes, that’s pretty much it for “John Wick.” There are no twists and turns. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad doesn’t reinvent the narrative wheel. It’s linear trip from Point A to Point B with a buttload of head shots in between. I suspect such refreshing simplicity and directness is one of the things fans enjoyed about it, but the two most appealing things about this film are its conception and presentation of violence and a use of world-building that’s unusual for the genre.
“John Wick” takes us back to the glory days of the 1980s with a hero who cuts through scores of anonymous bad guys like a combine through an Iowa corn field. Usually with a gun, but sometimes with his bare hands or a knife, John is a dazzlingly efficient slayer of men. What makes the smorgasbord of death engaging rather than numbing is that director Chad Stahelski thankfully disregards all the modern clichés that plague action scenes. There’s no shaky cam or constant quick edits that have turned contemporary movie fights into indistinguishable blurs of motion. When John Wick is killing dudes, you can actually see what he’s doing and understand why it works. For old farts like me, it’s a delightful throwback in style that highlights the technical advancements in cinema action. For youngsters who’ve grown up with combat that looks like it was filmed through a kaleidoscope, “John Wick” must have been a revelation.
Additionally, the film sets its story in a mysterious underworld that resembles the reality of criminal life as closely as Godzilla resembles somebody’s pet iguana. John sets up shop at an assassin’s only hotel, calls up a professional cleaning crew to dispose of his victims and pays for everything with golden coins. The film alludes to an entire universe of institutions and rules of which John Wick is only a small part. It’s an intriguing dimension that implies a level of sophistication behind a by-the-numbers crime/revenge tale.
“John Wick” isn’t a masterpiece. It never gives us a reason to care about its main character and repeatedly emasculates the object of John’s ire to the point where you almost feel sorry him. And when that traditional climax arrives, the movie keeps going for another 20 or 30 minutes. It’s as if the script started out as the pilot for a one-hour TV show, then had an extended epilogue added to make it into a feature film. But is it fun, reasonably intelligent and delivers everything it promises in a fashion you don’t expect.
So it’s somewhat understandable why Hollywood signed up Kolstad and Stahelski and gave them a bigger budget to try again. Well, it’s understandable by Hollywood standards. In reality, the list of filmmakers who manage to produce something good and then follow it with disastrous crap is long and legendary. From the Wachowskis, who embarrassed themselves with “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”, to Neveldine/Taylor, who negated the thrilling “Crank” (2006) with the abominable “Crank: High Voltage” (2009), and a host of others, success has spoiled a lot more than Rock Hunter.
Fortunately, “John Wick: Chapter 2” takes everything that worked in the first movie and expands on it in a manner that may be a bit repetitive but that continues the fun and excitement. There are more and longer action scenes and the world-building is taken to another level, with Reeves holding it all together in a way that validates why he’s been a movie star for so long despite having an often inexplicable affect.
In the aftermath of the first film, John hopes to return to a life of normalcy when an oozy villain (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls upon John to fulfil an old obligation. The bad guy wants his sister killed so he can take her place on “The High Table,” which is apparently the ruling body of the franchise’s increasingly hard to understand underworld. I honestly can’t tell if the people in “John Wick: Chapter 2” are still supposed to be criminals, members of some kind of ancient secret society or what. They could be aliens pretending to be humans while manipulating our civilization from behind the scenes and it would make as much sense as any other explanation. The original was clearly established in the crime genre. The sequel is more like a mash up of James Bond and The Da Vinci Code.
The action scenes are bigger and more elaborate, though there is a bit of the dreaded shaky cam this time and there’s definitely a point where things pass beyond the border of melodrama and enter the realm of comedy. And while the world-building continues to be imaginative, it occasionally turns into self-parody. Whether it’s presenting a New York City where there is literally a freelance assassin on every block or a global communication system that still uses technology from the 1940s, this sequel severs any link to the real world.
But “John Wick: Chapter 2” is better structured than the original, with a far more satisfying resolution and an ending that genuinely makes you anticipate a third film. It’s like a giant-size version of a regular candy bar. If you’ve got a sweet tooth and enough of an appetite, it will hit the spot.
I must also point out that the sequel continues a pattern of John Wick beating the snot out of a female assassin half his size, though it’s worse the second time around because “Chapter 2” goes all out in building her up as a badass only for the clash to make it painfully obvious she never stood a chance in hell of winning. I know we’re all supposed to be about equality these days but does that honestly require us to pretend that there can ever be a fair fist fight between a 170 pound man and a 120 pound woman?
This Throwdown goes to “John Wick: Chapter 2” because it better executes everything that was good in the first film. So in a way, the motion picture industry’s desperation and lack of creativity worked out for the best this time. We got a nice little flick that probably would have been quickly forgotten in a previous era and an even more entertaining sequel. But unless they do a crossover with Marvel where John puts on an armored power suit and fights The Hulk, I’m not sure about a probable trilogy. If you keep going back to the well, it eventually runs dry.
John Wick (2014)
Written by Derek Kolstad.
Directed by Chad Stahelski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Jones, Bridget Moynahan, John Lequizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Thomas Sadoski and Lance Reddick.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Written by Derek Kolstad.
Directed by Chad Stahelski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski and Perry Yung.