From Vengeance to Betrayal: ‘John Wick’ Returns With Higher Stakes

John Wick: Chapter 2 is very much its own film – an impressive concoction with a serious lead but a film that doesn’t take itself seriously.

A still from John Wick: Chapter 2. Credit: Facebook

A still from John Wick: Chapter 2. Credit: Facebook

If you’ve never heard of John Wick, the chances are high that you’ll hear this story about him first: “He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil”. If the teller wants to emphasise the man’s aura, he may even add, “With a pencil. I mean, who does that?” The John Wick franchise, starring Keanu Reeves, takes its hero seriously – there’s no doubt about that. Different characters tell different stories about him. A hitman is usually feared, but John Wick is different – he’s also loved and admired. For him, rules are bent, concessions are made, grievances are forgotten. Because John Wick gets the job done. John Wick tames the impossible. If the wonders of science could make Rajnikanth and Chuck Norris produce a child, he would be John Wick, a gun-toting bloodthirsty badass who has remained unscathed by knives, bullets, bombs – anything.

John Wick: Chapter 2, sequel to the 2014 John Wick, looks determined to advance its hero’s legacy, make him, if it was even possible, more heroic. But this latest instalment, like many sequels, does prompt an obvious question – do we need this film at all? Because John Wick, an entertaining revenge drama demanding frequent suspension of disbelief, had a paper-thin plot, heavily relying on over-the-top action sequences and Reeves’ charisma. And, within the framework of a mainstream actioner, John Wick was an impressive achievement. But how much bloodshed, through the same character, can we see on the screen again? What more can its sequel promise? Plenty, John Wick: Chapter 2’s opening segment seems to indicate.

Here, the film retains the prequel’s spirit and mood. John Wick is introduced through a story (“he killed three men in a bar…”) as he’s pummelling some ruffians in a dark alley. Once he’s done with his business, Reeves approaches the camera, the right side of his face lit, the left side shadowed. John Wick’s so filmy he’d make vintage Bollywood proud. This bit cuts to a long action scene, intercut with a visibly intimidated drug lord, simultaneously impressed and disturbed by John Wick’s invincibility, warning his associate about our hero. John Wick: Chapter 2 gets its tone right straight away – it’s funny and doesn’t moderate its excesses. It’s an impressive concoction; a film with a serious lead that doesn’t take itself seriously.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is very much its own film, with new story and motifs. This film, like its prequel, has John Wick’s pet dog too, but (thank God) nothing happens to it. He returns to his murderous ways, this time, for a different reason. If John Wick centered on vengeance, then John Wick: Chapter 2 revolves around obligation and betrayal, with much higher stakes.

In terms of screenplay structure, a big budget Hollywood actioner resembles a mainstream Bollywood musical. If the latter has songs, the former has action scenes – and in mediocre films they often exist for their own sake, interrupting the story, failing to contribute anything new or substantial. Few directors fail to realise and tap their true potential. But the John Wick films are intelligent and avoid that trap. Just like its prequel, John Wick: Chapter 2’s action sequences are stylised and well shot; in fact, there’s such an easy flow to them that they feel choreographed. One long sequence, in particular, taking place in a tunnel is breathtaking. Another sequence, in the film’s climax, unfolding in a chamber made of glass ceilings and walls (doubling up as doors), is similarly heady.

Mainstream action films, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is no exception, expect their audience to be lenient, to gloss over their flights of fantasy. Because despite attention to detail and attempts at authenticity, these films, especially their action sequences, aren’t real. And they can’t be, because a part of their charm lies in watching a hero barge into an unfamiliar territory and take down the villain and his henchmen. These are wish-fulfillment fantasies soaked in blood. Many actioners, though, are insufferable, because they’re inconsistent and inane, awkwardly changing gears from real to make-believe. But the John Wick films are not; they’re smart and self-aware, which makes them entertaining and engaging. However, there are moments in John Wick: Chapter 2 that really stretch the limits of credence. For instance, when John Wick is shot twice in his lower abdomen, nothing happens to him. He keeps walking and running, evading and shooting bullets, effortlessly, and for a long stretch of time. Even for a film like John Wick: Chapter 2, this is plain sloppy and annoying, and, unfortunately, not an isolated instance in the film.

After an hour or so, the film starts getting repetitive, with one overlong (at times, convenient) action sequences after the other. The other strengths of the film – funny dialogues, sharp plotting – become inconspicuous by their absence. Its fairly predictable climax doesn’t do it much in the way of favours, either. Albeit uneven, this sequel is enjoyable and fun, but not enough to stoke interest for another film in the series.