The first human body seen on screen in John Wick: Chapter 2, the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014s surprise headshot ballet, is that of Buster Keaton. It’s an homage uniquely fitting for director Chad Stahelski (and his co-directing partner David Leitch, taking the backseat for this entry) who, coming from a background in stunt performance, appreciates the expressive form of the body in motion like few others in the industry. The choice to prioritize and focus on real physical performances—the particular way(s) Reeves runs, holds, grunts, sweats and reloads are these films’ prose—combined with framing and editing designed for clarity is what made John Wick stand out in Hollywood action machine of hyper-cut close-ups. That, and the winking mythologizing of its intricately sculpted criminal underworld, of course, both elements that Chapter 2 not only manages to deliver and expand on, but goes even further, abstracting them into an even deeper, sadder, more surreal hyperviolent beast of horrific reflection.
If the first film was Orpheus’ first descent into Hades (the Greek underworld, commonly referred to as a realm invisible to the living, made solely for the dead), seeking an answer for his grief that due to his particular skills has subsequently rocked the entire world, this is the second trip he was never allowed. And for good reason. Wick is still fuelled by an overbearing sense of anger and vengeance, however this time around for the entire antiquated criminal institution that refuses to let him leave. Early in the first film Ian McShane’s Winston, the manager of the Continental hotel offering specific services for assassins, tells John that if he “dips so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may very well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths.” And that’s exactly what happens when after he’s put his beef with Russians to bed, an old colleague from Rome hears of John’s brief return and uses it as a chance to blackmail him with a blank contract he signed with a blood oath years prior.Both films are about the past, literal and otherwise, coming back to infect the future. Observe the contrast between Wick’s modernist home and the oldschool architecture and “rules” of the Continental, or the entire setpiece that takes place during a neon rave in an ancient Roman ruin. But where Chapter 2 differs is in its rueful chipping of the world it implied in the original. Here Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Lausten frame the international criminal underworld against settings, statues and architecture that imply a Godlike status of these killers (which it also captures as all of these extravagantly brutal events seem to go unnoticed by civilians, or mortals if you will), complete with all the blind ambition, familial betrayal and petty bickering that can be found in Greek myth. The inner workings of the underworld are undeniably cool, and the film doesn’t even try not to revel—there’s a thrilling montage of John selecting his clothes and gear, followed up by a setpiece where we get to see his choices come fruition in the exact way he planned for them—but it also doesn’t take long to understand why he wanted out.
This world he operates in is intoxicating, rousing even, but it’s also grotesque and destructive, soulless, and nothing better encapsulates this dichotomy than the film’s action itself. Wick is Hercules, a legend of sheer will and strength, and watching him at work is nearly a dreamscape—his motions literal and calculated, human even, but the results an abstract blur of broken bones and splattered brain matter. It’s like watching human bodies transform into a Jackson Pollock painting right before your eyes. It’s difficult for him, and for us, to reconcile this expertly crafted savagery with John’s plans of retirement, a supposed dream of a future outside this archaic organization of remorseless murderers, and the films final setpiece challenges this idea directly, putting John into a house of mirrors where he has no choice but to confront his own carnage like a horrifying art piece that defines him. The self, however, is not so easily defined, and sometimes all it takes to truly change is to choose to. Bring on Chapter 3.