A good action sequence should carry the same amount of precise movement and fluidity as a good dance number.
The motion plays partner to the viewer, leading them to each point with definition and confidence. It is easy to hide an action set-piece, and that is more of an indictment on the levels of creativity or the restrictions of the piece’s featured players.
This desire to see action that feels renewed and visually appealing is what ignites many people’s passions for the John Wick franchise — one that kicked off in 2014 with vibrant, neon-lit sequences and a perfectly deadpan performance from star Keanu Reeves. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the stage was set and question was not “what is this,” but rather, “what more can this be?”
To answer, it can be much more.
The events of the first film have left John Wick again looking to settle into retirement. He has vanquished the dog-killing, car-snatching villains and can retreat to his secluded home to live in peace (along with a new canine companion). Serenity doesn’t last long as an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls on a favor from John — one that the famed assassin promised the first time he attempted to “leave the game.”
Wick denies D’Antonio’s request and he responds by torching Wick’s home — destroying any connection he has to his past and requiring him to satisfy his request. Too bad John Wick is not completely satisfied with just living up to D’Antonio’s proposal to kill his sister in order to take a seat in the high court of villainy and seeks his own form of revenge.
The franchise can only go as far as its star and John Wick soars due in no less part to the work of Keanu Reeves, who embodies the troubled figure with all the angst of a man trying to move from his past and make good with his life. Wick’s characterization follows a similar path of famed anti-heroes as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers or even more recently with Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers series.
Like those examples, the core drive of Wick as a character is to escape living in the past and create this utopian scenario where he can ride off into the sunset — tying up each loose end on the way. Naturally, Wick will never have the ability to do that (at least as long as the series runs) and what sets this franchise apart is the world in which the character inhabits in his attempt to accomplish his goal.
There is a controlled chaos to the world of John Wick. Rules are crucial and both films harp the methodology of crafting each assassination (in this latest chapter, we catch a glimpse of a band of tattooed women who answer kill requests and disperse them as if they were telegraphs). This degree of order takes away from the brutality of the kills, which are in no short supply in Chapter 2 and even more brutal than before.
The initial appeal of John Wick (and Chapter 2) is its intense focus on both visually-appealing and cinematically-sound action sequences. This makes sense as director Chad Stahelski (along with the first film’s director David Leitch) worked in stunts, which eventually led him to Keanu Reeves.
The visuals of Chapter 2 surpass its predecessor not just in how Stahelski crafts the art of each set (which is also near masterful), but how he and his crew craft the art of each punch, kick, gunshot and hit. This is where the series mirrors musical counterparts mostly due to how precision allows for the sequences to seem more pronounced (duh) and carry more life than your usual Hollywood action fare.
The weapon of choice for Wick is a gun and they use this device to craft a scene’s precision just as Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain or Fred Astaire in Top Hat would use the hits of their body to accentuate the dance number.
In this scene, Kelly hits each mark with strength and decisiveness. In order to sell the number, you have to exude confidence (succeeding with each mark) so the audience doesn’t feel any slacking. Each hit propels the sequence forward and keeps the audience on their toes due to the incredible speed and precision of the performers.
The same can be said about how an action sequence in John Wick: Chapter 2 is crafted. In lieu of Reeves using his body to accentuate the motion (which is something he does, but this movement lacks the momentum of the gunshots), each round from Wick’s gun propels the scene forward.
The decision is subtle, but the impact is what aids in elevating the franchise’s key component.
It is easy to question the overall impact of audiences witnessing such gruesome takedowns of various faceless henchmen and assassins, but what qualifies John Wick (and John Wick: Chapter 2) from having to answer this is its meticulous and almost religious following of order.
This concept also creates a thorn for the main character as following protocol has been something to control his urges. In this way, the franchise works as an almost companion to popular action/horror series, The Purge, as the massive amount of killing seems almost like a release for people rather than an end to a means.
After killing person after person, you return to the Continental (a safe space hotel where the assassins are forbidden from killing others in lieu of penalty) and come back to structure. This conclusion can be made about the first film as well, but it seems like the series’ statement on this carnage works much like the thesis of The Purge — it is better to go on a rampage and return to structure rather than letting the hostility fester and erupt unexpectedly; which makes the ending of Chapter 2 so much more poignant (especially than the first movie) because it leaves Wick without the structure.
After fighting off a legion of assassins looking to get a payday by killing Wick (at the request of D’Antonio), Wick returns to the Continental where he finds a smug D’Antonio reveling in the fact that he can stay here and not worry about Wick’s drive for revenge. Instead, Wick fires a shot into his head, not only ending his chase of the Italian gangster but also ending the structure that defined his life.
Now, the killing has not justification. Now, this makes him a murderer.
These questions posed by John Wick: Chapter 2 is what elevate it a tad above its predecessor and anoints it as one of the great recent action franchises. The basic parts may be just that — basic — but the nuances are in the gears, and this machine is well-oiled and working at an efficient pace.