I saw the first John Wick after letting all the hype get to me. I remember seeing the trailer and thinking that it had a delightfully simple premise, but didn’t really care. But it seemed like everyone, from smart film critics to action movie buffs to idiots on the street, loved it, so I went and saw it. And I thought it was OK. I liked the world and the characters and the production but didn’t love it.
John Wick: Chapter 2 doubles down on all of that: it shows us more of the world, introduces new characters and brings back the ones I cared about, and features a greater variety of locations and types of action set pieces. And I thought it was OK. If someone tells you they liked the first one and not the second, I could not guess to tell you why, unless they just didn’t want more of the same. It makes me wonder if I like action movies at all.
I come from a family that watches Die Hard every Christmas. I feel like I’m the resident action movie guy on the blog – I’m the one who wants to talk about Fast and Furious sequels and super hero movies while Colin and John have loftier ambitions. But this film series, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of pure action spectacle just leaves me cold. Why is that? Is there something wrong with me or is there something about these movies that is off-putting?
Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick, he is a famously vacant actor who has been given the chance to finally go full no emotion. In both movies, we are constantly reminded that John Wick is the devil, the boogeyman, an unstoppable killing machine that will destroy anyone who dares cross him or end up in his sights. In both movies, his motivation is simple and effective: in the first, he wants revenge, in the second, he is forced into a straightforward life-or-death situation. That makes for a clear protagonist that you really have no reason to root for.
John Wick is the good guy because he doesn’t want to be in these situations, other forced him there. But after watching him shoot hundreds of people to death, I kind of had to wonder if the world would have been a better place without him. After all, his biggest champion in this sequel basically doesn’t want people to cross him because John Wick will end up killing them all. He’s a character who has lost everything, and has unemotional responses to his situation, so what does he have to live for? What will he achieve after having killed everyone?
The villains are similarly void of complexities. Riccardo Scamarcio plays a sniveling crime lord who is ruthless and wants more power. Ruby Rose plays his bodyguard, who is mute and gives us no reason to believe she is a worthy foe for Wick. The same could be said of Common, who plays another hitman who goes after Wick for revenge. The most interesting characters are the ones on the sidelines, like Lance Reddick’s concierge who works at the hotel that serves as a safe haven for all hitmen.
So the movie has to survive on the strength of its action scenes, which it is absolutely full of. Just like the first movie, John Wick: Chapter 2 has a few car-based scenes, a few hand-to-hand fights, and a ton of shooting. I don’t think it’s possible to count exactly how many bullets John Wick fires, or how many guns he uses, or how many people die at his hand. What you can tell is that everything is thoroughly thought-out, meticulously choreographed, and shot steadily and clearly, so that you can enjoy each section in its entirety.
Look, I understand this kind of action movie requires you to dehumanize henchmen. There are many films in this genre, and they all become horrifying if you try to put them into any sort of reality where fathers, brothers, and sons in ridiculous quantities are being murdered by one man. But after a while, after the fifteenth person who is already down is shot in the head, it just stopped being fun for me. Not that I was disgusted or had trouble getting through it, it just wasn’t exciting any more.
That’s kind of the point of the movie, characters constantly give John Wick a hard time for saying he wants to retire, but I don’t understand that. The last time John Wick retired, he stayed that way until he was attacked and they didn’t even give him a second chance between the first movie and the second. As a character, he has no arc, just a desire to kill all the people who would kill him. If they actually did have some scenes of restless retirement, maybe the movie would be better for people like me.
Do I like pure action movies or not? What’s my problem? Besides my ever-present concern that the violent media I enjoy is exactly counter my values, I thinks it’s the lack of character that holds this one back for me. I think I’m a person who prioritizes good characters over good plots, and I guess that includes movies with deliciously straight-forward stories too. Maybe I don’t love Die Hard, I love John McClane? And maybe when a movie is just the story of a good guy killing a lot of bad guys, it’ll never rise above being just mildly pleasing to me.