dir: Chad Stahelski
When you ask yourself, really ask yourself, what is best in life, as in, what are the elements possible in life that give you the most meaning, or pleasure, what do you come up with?
There are the simple and cliché pleasures, of love, of family, of sex, that are no less pleasurable just because they’re universal, but there’s art, there’s exercise, there’s food, there’s booze, there’s a bunch of other stuff, elements as many and varied as there are people in the world.
When you ask yourself about those pleasures, does one of them end up being the distinct and exquisite pleasure of watching Keanu Reeves kill hundreds of people? Does that bring warmth, blood flow or wetness to the various bits of one’s psyche / body like any of those fundamental pleasures discussed earlier?
Because this film, and its predecessor, which wasn’t called Chapter 1 as far as I know, is really only about watching Keanu kill lots and lots and lots of people. If he killed a lot of people in the first one, he kills probably five times as many in this one.
If one isn’t thrilled by the prospect of watching a weirdly bearded Keanu kill boatloads of people, well, you’re not going to get much else out of this flick or this franchise. You’ve entered the wrong cinema / popped on the wrong Blu-Ray, or started streaming the very wrongest of titles. Best be putting on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel instead.
The first flick used as its excuse for non-stop carnage a) the death of the main character’s wife and b) the murder of his dog and theft of his car as sufficient motivation for a retired hitman to come out of retirement and kill the thousand or so people who interposed themselves between The Wick and his goal. It also graced us great unwashed in the audience with a premise whereby the world of crime and assassination has a kind of genteel order of rules, resources and its own hotel chain.
They probably have a loyalty card as well, but I didn’t ask. Signing up at point of sale is such a hassle.
The seeming lord of this underworld realm is Winston, played again as charmingly as ever by Ian McShane, who presides over the various activities underway at The Continental, and who alternately serves as a wise counsel and scolding parental figure against the actions The Wick is forced to undertake.
As the film opens, he kills a shitload of Russians, because apparently he didn’t get enough of killing Russians the first time around. His dog is still dead, but he wants his car back from the uncle and brother of the shitheads he totally murderised in the first flick (Peter Stormare), who takes up the vital role of mythologising the John Wick legend for our benefit. He even tells the story about The Wick killing dudes with a pencil. A pencil!
Cars can be fixed. Dogs can be replaced. But the hundreds of people The Wick kills aren’t coming back. Sure, there will be thousands more where they came from, but those individuals, most of them shot in the head, are gone forever.
What of their stories? What about their lives and loves, the people left behind without them, who’ve lost a lover or parent, a source of income, a snappy dresser, a reason to get out of bed in the morning and start killing people, what about them?
The Wick doesn’t care. His purpose is just to kill. Reluctantly, of course, at first. He never starts this shit; it’s always foisted upon him. Someone from his past calls upon him, cashing in a marker which The Wick is absolutely obligated to honour. If ‘retired’ super assassin The Wick doesn’t do what the creepy Italian mafia jerk (Riccardo Scarmaccio) wants, which is to kill his mafia boss sister so he can replace her as one of the lords of the underworld, then The Wick is going to be ostracised from the world of assassins, and then everyone will try to kill him.
However, after initially refusing, even when The Wick agrees to do what Italian jerk wants, and does it, with flying colours, a few bullet wounds and some nice clothes ruined as well, still he becomes ostracised from the world of assassins and everyone tries to kill him anyway.
Why? Well, what would be the point of a flick where The Wick kills hundreds of people if hundreds of people weren’t trying to kill The Wick, and he was just going about his business, walking his new dog, doing the Sudoku in the paper, taking it easy?
And when I say ‘everyone’ is trying to kill him, I mean there are sequences where The Wick has killed like a whole bunch of people, is running away, and random people across his path, the girl busking with the violin in the subway, the hot dog vendor, the shoe shine guy, the cab driver, the homeless guy; they all seem to be assassins as well. And of course he has to kill all of them too.
In fact, this seems to be a world where everyone is an assassin, or someone in the underworld, or someone who works for the assassins and the underworld. There are no ‘innocent’ people, except maybe the memory of The Wick’s wife, who is dead and therefore perfect. She was good and pure, but the rest of the world is fallen and sinful, and deserves to be dispatched by a cold robot who goes about his grim trade without ever raising his voice very much or ever changing his facial expression.
I say this as someone who likes action films, who has watched a lot of action films, and who will doubtless watch lots of action films into the future – after a while, watching a flat depressed guy dispatch nameless ‘bad’ guy after nameless ‘bad’ guy, even I can get a bit bored of it, truth be told.
The makers maybe know this too, so they try to make a couple of the other assassins stand out, like the roles played by Common and Australia’s Own Ruby Rose. Both are bodyguards more than anything else, but like I said before, everyone is part of this weird criminal conspiracy, and everyone is an assassin.
Common and Ruby maybe stand out (Ruby being especially unlikely, in that she plays a deaf character, which I would have thought was something of an impediment to being a super lethal assassin-y type, not that I’m knocking deaf people oh no, they’re all great and they all contribute greatly to the great tapestry we know as life), but their role is just to not die straight away, like all the other nameless faceless goons.
The action is competent, there are set pieces like the Coliseum one that go on for a long while, and then basically The Wick is running around non-stop killing everyone that crosses his path for the next two hours. It’s a gruelling slog for him, and a bit for us, and it ends up at the same point where it was always going to end up: The Wick is on the outs with everyone, and now everyone in the world will try to kill him, but he won’t be able to stay at the hotel full of assassins anymore. Boo hoo. Though they did do a great breakfast buffet: Two of those mysterious gold coins, and all you can eat plus your bullets are complimentary.
As exhausted as I was by it all in the end, I have to say that the way their underworld works is slightly more interesting to me than watching people being mowed down without cease. When I call it the “underworld”, because of how bizarre it all is, I’m starting to suspect that it’s the actual Underworld, as in maybe some version of limbo or Hades or something where everyone’s already dead. There are plenty of hints and clues (like: the coins seem to be a reference to the coins one pays the ferryman to cross the River Styx to the Underworld; there’s a character called Charon, who was the ferryman from Greek myth; everyone fucking dies). I would not be surprised if Winston is revealed to be Hades / Pluto / Death himself.
They also use a deliberately antiquated phone and old technology message network to send out contracts to all the assassins throughout the world, presumably because… well I couldn’t really think about why, other than the makers thought it would look anachronistically cool. The phone exchange operators / lovely ladies at first glance look like they’re from a movie from the 1930s, but then you notice they’re covered in tatts and piercings and a heap of sassy attitude.
Since there don’t seem to be any law enforcement types (except for one cop who turns out somehow to be a friend of The Wick’s, even though The Wick doesn’t seem to have any other actual friends in the world), it seems odd that people so flagrant about their assassin-y ways would play coy. It’s not like any of them are in the closet. This nation of assassins seems to be, since they kill each other in public, very out and very proud.
So why the circumspection? Because it looks cool, and it adds to the presumed mystique of the underworld, with its mythic routes and arcane ways.
At the beginning, The Wick wasn’t given a choice and was threatened with expulsion from the underworld. At the end of the film, when he’s killed ten thousand people, The Wick is expelled from the underworld anyway. So why did he bother adhering to their stupid rules and strictures for so long?
Because it looked cool.
Presumably, when they make Chapter 3, baddies will kill The Wick’s dog again, somehow kill his wife again, and then he’ll have to personally kill everyone in New York in a totally handcrafted, artisanal way.
And then it’ll be revealed that he’s been trapped in the Matrix all along.
6 times it’s one thing to love your work; it’s a whole other thing to never be able to stop working out of 10
“Somebody please get this man a gun.” – the conductor requires his baton – John Wick Chapter 2