Exploring the pure, delightful action of the original.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is out in theaters. It’s violent and glamorous and a wonderful ride, but it’s nothing compared to its predecessor. In order to understand where the sequel falls short, let’s take a moment to celebrate the magic of the original John Wick. There’ll be plenty of spoilers for the first film, scarcely any for the second.
John Wick is the purest and most joyful action movie I’ve ever seen. And given its full embrace of the genre, it may very well be one of the purest movies, full stop.
John Wick is an action movie that knows, intellectually, that it’s an action movie. Its plot is imbued with a beautiful self-awareness that I’ve been told I should be able to find in the Fast and the Furious franchise but have never fully seen. Because while those films have a one-up-manship to them that’s fun and even playful, they’re missing the absolute simplicity and consciousness that John Wick delivers.
The drive behind John’s actions are gotten out of the way in record time. By the 4 minute mark, his wife is already dead. And what we do see of her mostly speaks to her absence – her makeup in the bathroom, her coffee mug in the kitchen. Our very first shot of her is in a video on John’s phone – a relic from the past. Even her death is seen from a distance. Her loss is fresh, but for our purposes she’s firmly in the past – she exists exactly enough to inform John’s present.
And then John gets a dog, sent by his wife who knew he’d need a friend, and for the next six minutes this is a heartwarming movie about a woman helping her husband grieve from beyond the grave. But that’s not really what we’re here for, and everyone knows it. Poor Daisy the beagle is living on borrowed time.
And it’s not much time. By the 15 minute mark, the stage is set. Iosef Tarasov has stolen John’s car and killed his dog. John has been wronged in the worst way by an irredeemable person. (Poor Alfie Allen seems to have a type).
Motivation out of the way, we move on to the establishment of John’s character, and it’s beautifully spare. We get a hint of the terror John instills when John Leguizamo would sooner hit the son of a known mob boss than have John’s stolen car in his shop. This is followed up by a fantastic phone call from said mob boss:
I heard you struck my son.
Yes sir I did.
And may I ask why?
Yeah, well, cuz he stole John Wick’s car, sir. And uh, killed his dog.
That “oh” is the finest backstory you could hope for. It stops the conversation dead. Viggo Tarasov, cold-blooded gangster, hangs up his phone and reassesses. He goes on to explain John’s past in the next scene, but that “oh” is all we really need.
And the film knows the power of that word. As Viggo does reveal John’s backstory, it’s repeated by Iosef:
Well John wasn’t exactly the boogeyman. He was the one you sent to kill the fuckin’ boogeyman.
John’s reputation doesn’t leave his enemies afraid. It leaves them subdued.
The rest of the film plays out beautifully – we know the motivation, we know the players, and we know the goal. All that remains is to sit back and watch the carnage.
And it’s deliciously self-aware. Just like John’s incentive and backstory are given the lightest touch, the violence is exact and, while it’s constant, it’s never gratuitous. John doesn’t gloat, and he sure as hell doesn’t quip. He barely even speaks. He interacts with each assailant just enough to kill him, and to kill him definitively. There are no blows to the back of the head here, no incapacitations. Each enemy is dealt with as efficiently and as decisively as possible, almost always with a headshot. John doesn’t leave things to chance.
This spareness comes through in the setting, too. As John descends back into the life he used to inhabit, we catch glimpses of a world that exists alongside ours, with its own laws and currency and culture. Since we’re seeing through John’s already-accustomed eyes, there are no explanations – just flashes of images and ideas. That’s all we get: this world-building through hints and glimmers. And it’s all we need. It’s tantalizing, but it’s also deeply satisfying.
At what should be the climax, Iosef is brought down unceremoniously, from a distance, mid-sentence. We don’t see his face, and John doesn’t say a word. It’s reminiscent of John’s wife’s collapse in the beginning – what should be a grand moment pushed away.
This film isn’t about grand moments. It’s about a broken man who doesn’t want to be grand.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is a little bit grand.
Not too much, but just enough to make it a different kind of film. It doesn’t have the purity of the first, but there’s probably no way it could have. John’s original impetus couldn’t have been repeated without things getting campy, and his new pitbull is sent away to live with Lance Reddick just to be on the safe side.
So instead of another revenge plot, we get a story. It’s far from complicated: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” It’s the logical continuation of the first film, but it’s just that – a continuation. Almost by definition, there was no way to match the first film in its simplicity and freshness.
And with that continuation, other things are expanded and fleshed out. The shimmering underworld we get just a sliver of in the first film comes full into focus this time. And it’s a beautiful world, full of old-world style and manners and blood. It’s just not quite as tantalizing under scrutiny.
Part of the draw in the first film was the sheer scarcity of information. Our exposure to John’s underworld was a collection of images, always new and always unexplained. Now those images are being built upon, and a world is taking shape. It’s still a collection, and there’s still little explanation, but simply by virtue of numbers, those images are coalescing. We still have plenty of unanswered questions and a sense of wonder and newness, but we’re also getting a feel for the place we’ve come to inhabit.
And that familiarity comes across as deliberate. The new images are repeated throughout the film – the rockabilly switchboard service, the mass texting, the mentions of the 12 seats at the High Table. John Wick is destined to expand, now, and its world-building has a goal. It wants us interested, but it also wants us invested and comfortable for the inevitable next installment.
Similarly, the violence loses some of its freedom. In the first film John never meets a worthy opponent. He storms through bodies until he finds the one he’s after. This time, however, he gets held up a couple times, fighting Common and Ruby Rose in what could best be described as boss battles. The violence, just like the story and the setting, has become a little more complicated, a little more cinematic.
Is there anything really wrong with John Wick: Chapter 2?
It’s still wonderfully satisfying and deliciously self-aware. The beginning sequence with John’s car alone is enough to set the tone for a great ride that stays mostly true to the original. And to be honest, I’m not sure there exists a way to make a second that matches the first.
The root of my complaint is that John Wick is now a franchise, rather than a piece of art. The world has expanded, and the stage has been set to keep expanding. It’ll never reclaim what it once had, because what it had was unsustainable, a one-off. But even if the beauty of the first film has faded a little, it’s still there.
And I’m very excited to see where it goes.