John Wick — Chapter 2; 122 min; Rated R
After watching “John Wick-Chapter 2” I decided that Hollywood had managed to create a sequel to the debut film John Wick (2014) — an unexpected pop hit and now referred to as a “cult classic” — that is absent anything resembling a plot. Barely a hint. Actually, upon reflection, pathological violence is the plot.
Full disclosure: I never saw the first movie; however, I have an understanding of its premise. A lethal assassin, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), is retired. His wife has recently died, leaving him alone except for a small puppy and a classic 1968 Mustang that he treasures. A Russian mobster, owner of a chop shop, not realizing who John is, makes the mistake of stealing his car and killing John’s puppy. The story is about payback for taking the car, but most of all needlessly killing the puppy. The bad guys pay dearly for their mistake.
And so ends the first film. “Chapter 2” begins with John returning to the Russian mob’s digs, there to get back his car. Which he does, leaving in his wake a wide swath of mayhem. He is still retired, but clearly he will not let the Mustang go.
“Chapter 2” does not have the thin justification of a car or a puppy. John is forced out of retirement for one last hit, brought to him by an Italian assassin (Riccardo Scamarcio) who is calling in a marker and reminding John of a blood oath he once took as a way of getting free of his past life. The mission: kill the Italian’s sister. Really.
John grudgingly takes the hit, and so begins what is about 90 minutes of uninterrupted violence with a grim and graphic body count as he shoots and stabs his way to the hit and then makes his escape.
Violence in movies has been part of what has been referred to as B-movies for decades. Or, in the alternative, call this genre pulp cinema. But as movie mores have changed regarding what is acceptable under the umbrella of MPAA’s R rating, and with the advent of CGI, violence in films has taken on an entirely new dimension. Instead of B-movie/pulp cinema, I’d call it action porn. It’s gratuitous, needing only the sparest story to prop it up.
What is even more insidious about “Chapter 2” is that it gives John a patina (as he prepares to make the hit) of civility. He purchases two bespoke suits, the silk lining concealing a thin layer of Kevlar. He visits a gun emporium where he buys a variety of weapons from an elegantly dressed and studiously mannered “sommelier” who has instead of an array of bottled wine racks and racks of rifles and handguns and knives.
John leaves, armed, well dressed, and soon turns the movie into a killing field. It’s vulgar and grotesque and ultra-violent and inherently dishonest and cynical.
And yet, “Chapter 2” has been gushed over by critics as being a symphony of beautifully choreographed killing, one calling it “visceral, cathartic and gorgeous …” and “meticulously made” and therefore linked to an aesthetic experience, the equivalent of a ballet.
In fact, there has been much written about the aestheticization of violence in movies, the word “stylized” comes to mind.
Defensively, the filmmakers who travel in this lane argue that these films are not exploitive or desensitizing. They are, when done well, an art form.
That is an empty rationalization. Instead, films such as “John Wick” and “Chapter 2,” focus on the most dystopian aspect of the human heart. John Wick is a sociopath. The world he survives in is the dark side of the moon. His qualities of remorselessness are exalted (Reeves is perfect for this role, his delivery always flat), and the value of human life is not even an afterthought.
Regardless of the contemporary high production value of what were once regarded as second-tier movies, many have only grown more vacuous, and the violence inherent in their stories is in truth perpetrated against the audience. Ditto first-person shooter video games.
“Chapter 2” is not stylized anything; rather, it’s simply barbaric, and while it is likely that you the reader will not seek this film out, discourage anyone you care about (say a teenager) from seeing it as well.
Last word: if you love movies and their potential to tell a touching story about the human condition, such as it is, it’s difficult not to be supremely offended.