“John Wick: Chapter 2” (2017): The Marksman’s Marker (Review)
To what extent can the law’s ultimate body and voice be exempt from its own rules? We may have to wait for the next movie to get the complete answer, but John Wick: Chapter 2 takes a mighty stab at the aorta of that question as it dives deeper into the ideas that the original introduced.
Action movies rarely build worlds like this. The world of Wick 2 offers more expansive and bizarre delights from the dark underground world of cold-blooded murder, along with bigger set pieces for shootouts and head-splattering mayhem. In doing so, it ends up being a fun and worthy – but still inferior – sequel to a perfect film. Time, however, will likely be unfair to this film if the series and title character are not granted a Chapter 3.
Yes, even with its unwieldly structure, the original John Wick is a capsular masterpiece. Like the original Star Wars, it teases a fascinating world beyond the camera frame with its own laws, conditions, and quirks, but centers on and completes the solo protagonist’s standalone journey. Johnathan Wick (Keanu Reeves) wasn’t just a legendary ex-hitman returning to the fold to exact vengeance for the murder of his grieving partner (his puppy Daisy). He was, like the Greek goddess Nemesis, the personification of lawful retribution in a world of assassins. That was why so many characters went out of their way to help him out, and why even villains acquiesced to his demands. That was why hubris was the ultimate folly in this high society, why John Wick’s name is whispered in fearful hush, and why the action plays out like two distinct and dynamic dream sequences – one for Wick’s murderous expression of grief, and one for Iosef Tarasov’s nightmare as the helpless prey in the chase.
Not long into the original film, Winston (Ian McShane) warned John that if he “dipped so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out, and drags you back into its depths.” Wick 2 turns these words into prophesy by introducing Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) as an old associate who, after hearing of John’s brief return to “civilization,” has come to collect the blood oath (the Marker) John swore him long ago. After John refuses to help him, Santino sets his house ablaze and John is then reminded by Winston that the Marker signifies a sacred obligation. The mission sends him to Rome, and then into spoiler territory.
With a slightly excessive runtime and more linear, event-driven story, Wick 2’s isn’t quite as economical as the original. It occasionally slips from its core focus, and I suspect that certain plot digressions involving Santino’s agenda and power structure will be hit or miss with some people. But it’s hard to care about that when the action dazzles this much. Reeves still more easily fits the skin of his character than anyone else, and you can tell how much he’s put himself through the wringer for the gun work and action stunts. For 52, he looks, moves, and works like he’s 32 and shows no signs of slowing down.
The plot could be described as a process of the individual growing dejected with the high society whose values and virtues he once embodied in full. Santino may be the chief antagonist, but John’s true enemy this time is the law. His drive is to escape it and find peace in solitude – which is why he still hasn’t given his new dog a name. It’s an admirable, if perhaps impossible motivation because this world has more assassins than it probably has targets. Whereas in the original, John was the unstoppable force of nature zeroing in on the unbeliever, here he is the immovable object on the run from civilization itself.
Wick 2’s pacing and scope expansion follows in the footsteps of The Raid 2: Berandal, but avoids most of that film’s narrative pitfalls by keeping with the character as he endures his punishment. Those dishing it out include a bodyguard and old friend named Cassian (Common) and a mute enforcer Ares (Ruby Rose). John gets hit hard and hits back even harder; he shows us what is told about him in the myths, and all to a fusion rock score that keeps up with him.
Comparing the two films isn’t fair because for all of its efforts, Wick 2 can’t match its predecessor. And if you’re in for Lawrence Fishburne alone, you’ll want to temper your expectations. But there’s enough to make me interested in a concluding entry, and the price of admission is more than worth it for the action, the guns, suits, cars, Roman landscapes, music, lore, and that glorious big Keanu-Reeves Shaped Piece of Wood. Don’t hate; he’s awesome.