You know that feeling when the credits roll on a movie that you had little-to-no expectations of going in, but which then absolutely blew you away? Maybe it was some flick that came out of nowhere for which, yeah, sure, there might have been a fairly mighty word-of-mouth buzz, but even that couldn’t quite prepare you for the sheer amount of quality on display?
No film better exemplified that feeling for me than the original John Wick. Former stunt men turned directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch—along with writer Derek Kolstad—hewed an absolute masterpiece out of the marble. That film was pure cinematic joy made flesh. Lean, resonant characterization and storytelling, gorgeous cinematography, immersive and original world building, a script packed with quotable and iconic moments (“a fucking penceel!”). Plus it had some of the best action choreography, stunts, and camerawork this side of The Raid. John Wick was, and remains, the full package.
Now take that ecstatic feeling I described, load it up with tequila and vodka, strap it to a merry-go-round in a park in Chernobyl for a while, and then let it wander loose until it collapses arse-up somewhere on a park bench, upchucking its irradiated lungs. That’s the feeling that slowly flooded my system while watching John Wick: Chapter 2 last night.
I’m willing to admit that emotions were running high, as I not only wanted the movie to be at the very least good, hopefully great, but also expected it. And—in a certain way—I needed it to be. Nevertheless, I have had a good sleep on it, and in the cold sober light of day my conviction remains: John Wick: Chapter 2 is not good.
Film criticism is a subjective and personal thing of course, and I have nothing but respect for my colleague TK’s review (I have to say that or I wind up in his basement.) But for me, this movie was one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long, long time. There are flashes—oh-so-brief flashes—of the magic that imbued the original. But by and large, this sequel feels like bad fan fiction come to life, adopting a superficial similarity to what it is imitating, but at every step of the way betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the first tick. The interesting thing is that two thirds of the original team returned. One must then assume that the missing piece this time round, David Leitch, was the Paul Simon of this collaboration.
But let’s start with the engine at the centre of things: John Wick himself, Keanu Reeves. I love Keanu Reeves. The dedication and intense hard work he brings to the preparation for his action roles is what made the first Wick movie possible in the first place. We’ve seen him work. The man is a machine. Where other actors would slack off training and the movie would rely on cutting and trickery to mask their ineptitude, Reeves’ extensive preparation allowed him to be framed clearly and shot at length, with spatial clarity. We could see him actually perform these near-superhero feats of agility and deadly grace. The choreography in the first film is off the charts, with every single fight scene or shootout being at the very least exceptional. The club shootout was better than a year’s worth of most other movies’ action scenes combined. So it is utterly beyond my comprehension that this time around, the creative team made choices that occasionally had me struggling to make sense of what was happening or why.
Perhaps it was the change in cinematographer (Dan Laustsen instead of Jonathan Sela), but there was nothing here that compared even to the (relatively) tame scene in the first Wick where the team of assassins invade John’s house. There the action flowed around a darkened house at night, and never once were we anything but absolutely sure of where everyone was in relation to everyone and everything else. Clear shooting, unobtrusive cutting. Unfortunately, Chapter 2 doesn’t come close to living up to this standard.
It wasn’t just the camerawork that slacked this time; the staging suffered too. There was a logic to the carnage in the original movie. Once again, if we take the house invasion scene by way of comparison, we knew where John was coming from, and where the entrances to his house were—and thus where the invaders would be approaching from. That’s how you stage a scene. Our understanding of the battlefield is crucial.
Later, when John moves lethally through the aforementioned nightclub, there is again a clear sense of progression and a logic to where his enemies are. In Chapter 2 there are multiple cases of henchmen spawning in from seemingly arbitrary points, existing only for a few seconds and for the sole purpose of having John fire a gun in a different direction. It’s not all garbage, of course, and there are a few wonderful shots (shots as well as shots). But there’s basically nothing that recreates the technical or creative verve seen in nearly every scene in the first movie.
The world-building of the first John Wick is a crucial part of what gives it its magical sheen. It created a colorful parallel dimension of criminality that existed seemingly under our very noses, with its own code, currency, and various industries. It showed us just enough without revealing too much. The sequel riffs on this world, but while there are a few neat new ideas—such as the Marker that acts as the catalyst for most of the action—most expansions of the mythology feel either unnecessary or poorly thought out. Bad sprawl! Bad!
(Some spoilers from here on in.)
It sounds harsh, but watching John Wick: Chapter 2 I honestly felt at times like it was an amateur effort, a tribute video rife with baffling decisions that could have only been made through either laziness or a willful disregard for what made the original great. The entire prologue where John steals back his car from the brother of the original’s Big Bad, Viggo, is almost entirely superfluous and filled with nonsense.
When Viggo’s brother—played with hammy zeal by the always fun Peter Stormare at least—listens in fear as John dispatches every single one of his henchmen and then slowly marches to his office, he doesn’t think to pull out a gun and aim it at the door? Are we meant to assume that a vicious, deranged-looking mob boss type doesn’t keep a piece in his desk drawer? Why would we assume something so against genre convention? If you make a decision like that, you have to tell the audience why.
Notice too that I didn’t bother to learn Viggo’s brother’s name. He’s not the main villain. Yet I didn’t learn the actual villain’s name either, because the movie made no effort to make me learn it. Apart from a glowering henchman, Cassian, who is buoyed up by some of Common’s natural charisma, the villains here are forgettable and flat. Nowhere is there found anything like the sneering braggadocio or cowardice of Viggo’s son Iosef, or the instantly iconic speechifying (“He was the one you sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman!”) and sublime moments of character (“Oh…”) of Viggo himself.
I could probably keep going at this indefinitely, but to name just three other, randomly picked bewildering decisions:
1. That long prologue just mentioned is followed by an interminable stretch of nothing much happening, seemingly in an effort to echo the way the emotional stakes were raised and the viewer invested in the original movie, but with no such outcome this time.
2. John leaves Ruby Rose’s mute assassin alive near the end. Why would he do that? There is nothing we know about the man John Wick and the context of that scene that tells us. Again, if you want us to believe something, you have to sell it. Similarly, as John approaches his main quarry through a crowded party, he has a clear shot at his target for a seemingly endless amount of time before he is spotted. The John of the first movie fired and killed Iosef unceremoniously in the middle of the latter’s villain’s speech; here he walks closer and closer towards his prey, jeopardizing his goal for no reason at all.
3. Finally, and perhaps least forgivable of all: Where the hell was the reloading?! The first John Wick movie took a giant shit on decades of action movie tradition/laziness by having the hero actually have to reload his fucking gun. Often in the middle of very hectic firefights. Instantly it felt like gunfights in almost every other movie ever made were found wanting.
This might seem like an accountant’s complaint, but suddenly we saw how much such a simple act of verisimilitude could elevate the fantasy of a beautifully choreographed shootout. It could be an organic element of its flow, influencing the push and pull between protagonist and henchmen. Michael Mann knows this too. Indeed, in what sounds like a complete paradox, John reloading are some of the most thrilling moments of the first movie. Chapter 2 has this happen a few times, and then drowns that in a deluge of infinite magazines. Where once detail and care ruled, the colors here bled across margins, sloppily marring the whole project.
Look at this moment from the first movie. How the action breathes in that moment, the magical rhythm and graceful tension it acquires just by having John reload his weapon:
The sequel had a chance to take all of these things as a foundation, and to really blast off to somewhere special. Expectation and precedent are a bitch, so perhaps I am unable to fairly weigh the virtues of John Wick: Chapter 2 against its flaws. Maybe on balance it is a fine enough action movie. The trouble is that it isn’t just an action movie. It’s a John Wick movie. And judging it by that standard, it comes up very short.