In 2014, John Wick appeared out of nowhere and instantly drew a cult status that it has continued to endure, celebrated by action fans for its self-aware cheesiness and inventive fight choreography. Despite being loved by fans of gleefully trashy genre cinema everywhere, I have to confess I was somewhat indifferent- the original film was nothing more than a polished version of the same generic Liam Neeson style revenge thriller pumped regularly into cinemas worldwide after the lightning in a bottle success of Taken. It was enjoyable, but it didn’t have the artistic merit many mistook it to have.
John Wick: Chapter Two, on the other hand, is exactly the movie passionate fans of the original believed it was. From the pre-credits sequence onwards, where our indestructible hero takes down a bunch of goons while trying to steal his car back, director Chad Stahelski increases the sheer preposterousness of an already ludicrous franchise- and makes for a shamelessly entertaining, hyper-violent blockbuster that is out of the gate as the year’s franchise movie to beat. It takes the potential of the original and doubles down on it, delivering a story so unhinged, my nose almost started bleeding at the thought of the amount of cocaine a screenwriter would have to snort to come up with this.
The reason John Wick: Chapter Two works where it predecessor didn’t, is because it doesn’t try to oversell the idea that the titular character is a badass. In 2014, I had no idea who John Wick was- and naming a film after somebody who isn’t a real life figure or pre-established movie character just screamed of forcing a new action hero into existence instead of just letting him become naturally beloved. Even though he’s equally mythologised to levels usually reserved to deities here, the screenwriting is funnier and even more self aware than the first time around, easily earning the character a place in the pantheon of famous action heroes.
It is often said that the last area of filmmaking in need of awards recognition is stunt work. John Wick: Chapter Two would be the likely winner at next year’s ceremony if the award were to be introduced, as the fight scenes are never anything less than expertly choreographed- at times brutal and bruising, at other times hysterically funny, but always designed and shot with a clarity so usually lacking in a genre that relies on shaky cams and fast cutting. It takes scenarios that other directors would stage as visually ugly, video game style scenes and makes them transcendentally cinematic. The video game comparison is especially apt, as the film is similar to Grand Theft Auto in that the majority of characters who populate this sprawling world are criminals and those that aren’t are indifferent to the chaos.
This version of reality helps create some of the funniest sequences, such as a shootout with silencers in a crowded New York mall that the patrons are not fazed by, or the most violent- including a showcase of John Wick’s infamous ability to murder people using only a pencil. The blasé attitude towards gun violence in the New York set third act could even be read as an irreverent commentary on gun violence in America, although adding intellectual commentary to the movie is entirely besides the point.
Not only this, but many sequences don’t play in the way you’d expect. Seeing Keanu Reeves shoot his way through endless goons in the Roman catacombs, before escaping and having a fistfight on the city streets, turns a climactic showdown into one of the most unexpectedly uproarious moments imaginable- all the funnier because of how ridiculous criminal underworld action turns into something mundane and all too recognisable. The movie doesn’t oversell its comedy like other action movies tend to, as it understands the situations are inherently ridiculous. It just takes that ridiculousness admirably seriously- few other directors would craft something so silly with a straight face.
Narratively, this sequel follows the more ambitious template set by The Godfather: Part Two, about a criminal whose attempts to get out of his business and start a free life are mired by the sins of his past. Outside of this general structural template, adopted by many continuations of criminal sagas in the past, suggesting it is a similar titan of its genre is ludicrous. John Wick: Chapter Two isn’t a masterpiece of cinema and that is precisely the point. It is entertaining, exciting action that revels in its own cheesiness and delivers elegantly staged spectacle- it is conclusive proof that it takes a truly smart filmmaker to make a movie designed to be viewed with the brain switched firmly off.
It wasn’t long ago that January and February were still considered to be the “dump months”, where studios would release their worst films to get them out of the way. Between John Wick: Chapter Two and Lego Batman, it is clear that Warner Bros. have got their shit together, atoning for their DC Cinematic Universe sins by releasing what will surely be two of the finest franchise movies of 2017 straight out of the gate. I cannot wait for the unhinged carnage that awaits in Chapter Three.