Exploring The Deceptive Brainlessness of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

[Note: this article was originally posted on Moviepilot.com]

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John Wick: Chapter 2 would like us to believe it has nothing to say. It’s a breathless, trashy descent into ultra-violence set in an assassin underworld where murder is as natural as breathing. Following another year of high-profile shootings, surely a film of such unrepentant brutality is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Yet, it never does. That’s because, even more so than its fiercely frivolous predecessor, Chapter 2 is actually a remarkably stealthy satire that, through its inventive world-building and crazy characters, holds a mirror to society’s shameful, near-religious fetishization of violence. In reality, this film has plenty to say, but the effectiveness of its message hinges on its ability to disguise itself as nothing more than shallow escapism.

The film’s mindless exterior is so skillfully crafted that it’s easy to get caught up in its vicious whirlwind. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad expand on all the best elements of the first John Wick film without losing its tight focus. The action sequences are larger, weightier and more over-the-top, mixing in old-school slapstick that laces the carnage with dissonant humor. Whereas the original took its time before revealing exactly what Wick was capable of, the sequel doesn’t have the element of surprise and the filmmakers smartly chose to begin, quite literally, at full throttle. From there, each new set piece escalates in scale while shifting the stakes and introducing new absurdities all the way to its eye-popping climax. Stahelski’s background in stunt work is apparent in the immense physicality and attention to detail within every frame, while Kolstad ensures each action scene forwards the plot rather than distract from it.

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Part of the first film’s charm was how easy it was to explain (they kill John Wick’s dog, John Wick kills everybody), the plot was never more than an excuse to offer a tantalizing glimpse into an intriguing fantasy world. I don’t mean “fantasy” as in wands and muggles, but much like a certain Wizarding World, the assassin community that Wick belongs to has its own peculiar rules and traditions, well-respected (or feared) figures and complex institutions tucked secretly within our own. The first film dropped audiences into this shadowy world with little explanation, leaving it up to viewers to imagine just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Though Wick 2 opens the scope of the order far beyond New York’s Continental Hotel, for the most part it still obscures just as much as it reveals, continuing to revel in its own mysteries.

All of this results in an immersive, beautiful bloodbath ballet, where we’re asked to smile and laugh as the body count rises. In that respect, the movie doesn’t seem different than any other mindless Hollywood blockbuster, save for an excess in style. Many reviews have inevitably chalked Chapter 2 up as a “guilty-pleasure” action flick, and the filmmakers themselves don’t appear to want fans to read any farther into it than that. However, good storytellers know that a story doesn’t resonate as deeply as Wick’s does without something deeper going on under the surface. Some may note that one element fans gravitate towards is the cavalcade of peculiar characters that Wick meets on his blood-soaked quest. It’s not their peculiarities that are the key to the film’s effectiveness — it’s what they all share in common.

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Some of the figures Wick meets are nefarious, such as central antagonist Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Some are oddly cordial, like bodyguard Cassian (Common), even when he’s out for John’s head. Then there are the in-between oddballs like the indeterminate Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, perhaps the most tonally out-of-place performance in the film, but a welcome extended cameo nonetheless). Despite their differences in demeanor and motivation, all are bound by a single, unalterable code. The absolutism of this complex system is unmistakably similar in form and function to any organized religion, made clear through constant nods to Catholic imagery (especially during the Rome-set middle stretch). The assassin order is carefully illustrated as an overtly absurd belief system, and that gives it a relatability that’s as effective as it is hard to pick out amidst all the blaring gunfire.

As with any faith, the followers of the assassin order walk among us every day; they’re the baristas, the bouncers, the businessmen and the buskers. They look, speak and present themselves as anyone else. Internally however, their entire lives are built around a strict adherence to a rule system that is assumed honorable and moral, and thus can not be defied under any circumstance. If this were a religion, though, their God would be death. The order’s way of life revolves around killing and little else. Murdering others for money is as simple a tenant as prayer or a matter of etiquette, like washing one’s hands before eating. As one can deduce, this leaves almost every character in John Wick: Chapter 2 completely desensitized to violence, which has its own adverse effects on them. Because death is clearly not desirable but is nonetheless a necessary part of their lifestyle, they might as well enjoy the process. Thus, killing people is frequently referred to as “business” and weaponry is savored like fine wine.

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We only meet one character in the film who has successfully “broken free” of this order: John Wick. Keanu Reeves seemingly plays Wick with this idea in mind. His face is constantly pained as he carries the unmistakable weight of religious guilt on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to enjoy the process because he’s seen that the order generates copious harm and hypocrisy to be swept under the rug. After all, nobody can question an absolute. However, as Wick learns the hard way, you can never truly leave a closed system without the specter of hellfire looming over your shoulder. Part of him wants to atone, but atonement in this world means death. So he must sin. He must break rules. Anyone who has experienced a crisis of faith can relate to and find a release through John Wick’s plight, as can anyone who’s ever questioned a large, powerful institution and felt the fire as a result. Wick is a secular Jesus for any and all.

Except he kills for our sins.

While the film’s religious metaphor is deceptively nuanced, the connection made between organized religion and violence should not be mistaken as an attack on religion. Rather, it’s an attack on humanity’s morbid fascination with blood and guts, and specifically America’s disproportionate obsession guns and gun rights. The film does not claim that religion will necessarily lead to corruption and danger, but instead warns that an increasing desensitization to — and interest in — violence could blossom into an almost religious fervor; that is, if our society does not become self-aware as to how ridiculous it is to fetishize death and destruction — as most blockbusters seem to encourage. That’s what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 and its predecessor so different.

The insane amount of mass murder that takes place on screen is not at all ridiculous to its characters. It’s just business. But it is ridiculous to us, the audience, who react with laughter at the absurd indecency playing out, as though it were a Buster Keaton comedy. By letting us in on the joke while the characters play it straight, the movie goes beyond being just another violent romp and becomes a timely, self-reflexive tool for audiences to mock their own savage tendencies and hopefully reflect on them on some subconscious level. That the final action sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors is not merely a great source of spectacle — it’s a symbol of the filmmakers’ intention to confront the audience’s depravity while allowing them to delight in it, to see the image and our reflection at once. In less pretentious terms: To have our cake and eat it too.

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Had any of its messages been more clearly spelled out, John Wick: Chapter 2 would have lost the narrative simplicity of its predecessor and could have fallen into preachy territory, or even garner accusations of sacrilege. It’s Stahelski’s skillful grasp over filmmaking as a celebration of the surface image that allows him to distract so masterfully from the important messages Kolstad imparts, working on the psyche from within. All the longwinded analysis in the world doesn’t matter, as the movie is meant to be enjoyed without a second thought. It only works when it’s working in secret. So enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2 for its mindless action, for its debaucherous excess, for its shallow, fleeting joys. But remember that not all guilty pleasures are equally guilty.

Review Score: 4 out of 5

 

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