The second film in the John Wick franchise opens with the titular retired contract killer finally tracking down his stolen car—the catalyst for the previous installment’s plot—and swiftly (and stylishly) dispatching every Russian thug stupid enough to stand in his way. Yet when he reaches the gang’s boss (played by a bearded, sneering Peter Stormare, in the first of several surprising celebrity cameos), he simply offers a toast and a promise of peace: if they leave him alone, he’ll seek no further vengeance. After the opening credits, as he pulls his throughly battered vehicle into his garage, we get another vital piece of characterization: he opens the glove compartment, pulls out a greeting card, and removes from it a photograph of his wife.
These moments not only flesh out Wick himself, but also illustrate how his personal sense of morality separates him from the violent world he inhabits. From the villains’ point-of-view, it was just a car that they stole, just a dog that they killed; they cannot comprehend why the loss of such inconsequential, material possessions would compel the fabled Boogeyman to embark on a murder spree. But for Wick, it was never only about the car, or the dog; it was about the memories of the quiet, happy, idyllic—and, tragically, all-to-brief—life he enjoyed with his one true love.
Let’s not delude ourselves: ultimately, all of this is still merely an excuse for bone-breaking action and shameless gun porn. But as far as excuses go, it’s a good one: Wick fights for pure, unselfish love against monsters seemingly incapable of understanding anything other than money or blood; thus, the viewer is fully invested in every punch, kick, stab, and gunshot.
Not that the action isn’t excellent on its own merits; the emotional groundwork simply elevates the already sublime. Like Zaotichi’s paradoxically graceful and gritty sword dances or the operatic motor mayhem that is George Miller’s Mad Max series, the filmmakers behind John Wick understand that great fistfights and shootouts are like musical numbers: they must have a particular rhythm. Director Chad Stahelski’s camera tracks our hero’s movements fluidly, communicating both choreography and geography with surgical precision. More importantly, he doesn’t bombard the audience with nonstop chaos; there are brief pauses between waves of enemies in which Wick takes the opportunity to count his remaining bullets and scavenge for supplies.
The result is more than just mindless violence and noise: it is a carefully-constructed ballet of bullets and bloodshed. John Wick: Chapter 2 may be an unabashedly straightforward action flick, but the conscious thought and painstaking effort that went into it are clearly evident onscreen. That’s more than I can say about plenty of other recent releases.
[Originally written February 12, 2017.]