John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

John Wick: Chapter 2 first published by RealCrime Magazine

If we have learnt anything from the likes of Sexy Beast, Jason Bourne, Red, and the sequels to The Fast and the Furious or The Mechanic, it is that in the artificial world of genre, there is no such thing as a reliable retirement plan. At the beginning of Chad Stahelski’s original John Wick (2014), some well-connected thugs drew Keanu Reeves’ grieving widower out of his early retirement by killing his puppy and stealing his classic car, unaware that he is an ex-hitman notorious for his relentless determination. His revenge is hyperviolent and unstoppable.

Now, in Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, John has a new dog, and his old car back, and is ready once more to settle into retirement – but no sooner has he sealed off his weapons than the doorbell rings, and unscrupulous Camorra mobster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio) makes him an offer he can’t refuse: ‘one last job’ in Rome eliminating Santino’s own sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). There will be double-crosses, close skirmishes and a lot of blood, as John finds himself with a price on his head.

If everything here sounds like cliché, that is because John Wick inhabits an alternative universe irrationally constructed from crime-flick tropes and little else – a secret underground world enfolded within our own where assassins are everywhere, where street beggars are in fact organised gangsters, where international networks of hotels and phone exchanges are devoted to facilitating criminal business, where deadly fights are conducted on New York’s street and subways without any response from the authorities, and where whole parkfuls of people seem to be at the command of power players (like Santino or Ian McShane’s hotelier Winston) who operate by an arbitrary but rigid code. In this cinematic space woven of pure genre, Reeves’ Nietszchean hero is all at once entrapped victim, avenging angel and ruggedly individualistic rebel.

The result is a strangely self-conscious mix, retreading and expanding the original John Wick and imitating countless other B movies, without once anchoring its criminal actions to any kind of reality (unless you count all the skulls graphically shattered by bullets). It certainly delivers all the gunplay and stylised mayhem that fans of the original could want – but it is also a good half hour longer than such pulpish materials can sustain and, never looking beyond genre or itself, ultimately comes up empty. How appropriate, then, that this most studiously postmodern of confections should have its climax in a hall of mirrors. There is talk of more sequels and a prequel TV series, but perhaps Wick really should retire while he’s still more or less ahead. There is nowhere new for Reeves’ retro hero to go.

© Anton Bitel