One of my favourite details about Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a small one about air transit. When The Bride travels to Tokyo to face O’Ren Ishii, she brings her sword on the plane. She doesn’t check the sword; she just carries it with her to her seat. Kill Bill came it in 2003, near the height of TSA mania, so this was obviously not an oversight, but I also don’t think it was simply a rule-of-cool moment either. I think Tarantino wanted to imply that the world of Kill Bill was one where The Bride’s story was unique, but not unbelievable. One where “assassin” was just a particularly exciting job option, maybe even with a booth at the school fair. In that tiny shot, Tarantino defined the structure of the entire universe of his film.
John Wick, which I’ll go to bat for as one of the best films of 2014, has a similar conceit. Wick is part of none-too-secret assassin’s guild, which has its own currency and lavish hotel. The first film used this for two main reasons, comedic relief and lending some in-universe plausibility to the absolute chaos that Wick creates. It’s a slapdash bit of mythos that allows you to enjoy the headshot ballet without worrying about real-world ramifications, but is entirely tangential to the revenge narrative. John Wick 2, on the other hand, leans entirely on this mythos, relying on it to kick off, propel, and wrap up its plot. In doing so, it reveals just how derivative this conceit is; scenes where Wick uses the guild armory to load up feel like a rehash of Kingsman, of all things, and no new interesting characters are introduced on the management side aside from the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. The mythos provides the bones well enough, but little in terms of narrative muscle.
In fact, the whole first half is a bit of a slog. A high-ranking guild financier calls in an old favor from Wick, asking him to assassinate a rival for a position on the guild board. Wick then ends up the enemy of both factions, each represented in action sequences by their dragons, played Common and Ruby Rose. The machinations behind this are related to the simple but arcane guild rules, and never feel as urgent or intimate as the revenge motivation of the first film. It has its villain pose a similar moment of personal affront to Wick early on, but it feels like a weaker retread of “kill dog, steal car”. The villain throughout the whole movie is pretty weak and unmemorable, highlighting just how underappreciated Michael Nyqvist was in the original. For a fair portion of the first half, it becomes a bit difficult to agree with Wick, and when he mows down a group of guards that he provoked himself, its almost enough to call the movie on its nihilism.
But when it comes together, hot damn does it come together. Around the halfway mark, the shoe finally drops, starting with an absolutely thrilling catacomb shootout and not stopping until the credits roll. At this point, the universe comes to life, including a magnificent extended sequence where seemingly everyone everywhere on the streets is out to get Wick. Even though the main villain never quite works, Common and Ruby Rose are both good presences, managing to come across as genuine threats to the nigh-invulnerable Wick and also injecting some much-needed personality. The camerawork clicks too, with a museum providing a consistently interesting and unique backdrop to Wick’s violent opera, in addition to the aforementioned catacombs. Director Chad Stahelski still opts for relatively long (for a modern action movie), smoothly swerving takes, allowing us to appreciate every detail of the fight choreography even as it flies past us. While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.
John Wick: Chapter Two (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Ruby Rose, and Ian McShane
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)
- I called Wick nigh-invulnerable, but he does get shot and stabbed more than once. However, after a quick bandage, he’s back on his feet and back to kicking ass. Die Hard this is not (nor does it have to be!).
- SPOILERS: The point I’m getting at with losing Wick’s sympathy is when he kills Gianna, and then takes out a group of her guards. He’s acting as an unprovoked assassin here, so it’s tough to not sympathize with the guards, and also makes Common’s Cassian seem briefly like a potential side-hero. The movie seems aware of this, as it throws in a scene where Gianna threatens a competitor’s children to make sure we have no sympathy for her, but it still feels morally a bit uneasy momentarily. Thankfully, Ruby Rose’s Areas comes along to betray Wick immediately afterwards and give him enough moral high ground to kill about fifty people and keep our sympathy afterwords.
- SPOILERS: I’m still a little upset that Wick and Cassian never teamed up; Cassian understands that Wick was the tool, not the brain, behind the assassination, and Wick was going after the guy who put the wheels in motion. While I’m sure he would have turned down a team-up, I was waiting the whole damn movie for one of them to at least bring up the possibility.