As action fraalnchises go, John Wick is relatively small. The first film in the series earned a modest $88 million worldwide, which was a nice return on a $20 million production budget, but not the kind of money that gets studio execs excited. The new installment, John Wick: Chapter 2, is on track to make a little more than its predecessor, but then again, it cost twice as much to make. So given the relatively modest audience size for these films, it’s been fascinating to see how they’ve seized the popular imagination for a certain sector of film fan, the audiences who love outsized action and extreme quirk in the same package.
2014’s John Wick, the directorial debut of longtime stuntman Chad Stahelski, is a slick shoot-‘em-up about retired assassin and depressed recent widower John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who gets back into the killing game after a careless Russian mobster steals his car and kills the puppy John’s wife left him. It’s a fascinating film — a standard violent revenge story delivered with tremendous style, and often set in an intriguing assassins’ enclave full of unusual customs and relationships. The new sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, is a fun return to that world, but it coasts a bit on the energy of the first film, with few new revelations or angles. And perhaps most disappointingly, the whip-fast, bone-crunching close-quarters combat that played so well in the first film is scaled up in the sequel, to the point where an awful lot of the fight scenes look very familiar. Two of our writers took a look at what’s wrong with the worst of John Wick: Chapter 2’s combats, what works well in the best ones, and where the franchise might successfully go from here.
Spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 2 ahead.
Adi: We both saw John Wick: Chapter 2, and one of my biggest sticking points was the fight scenes. The movie is anything but tame, but some of the action felt so metaphorically bloodless and un-spatial. Russell Brandom did a video about Mad Max in 2015, going through how its car chases are great because the scenes are chaotic and weird, but still give us a sense of how a bunch of moving parts fit together, even if it usually leads to things going wrong. John Wick 2’s fights sometimes feel more like a bunch of random casualties. Obviously, the fights are supposed to be over-the-top — that’s great. But they’re over-the-top without the sense that they’re actually happening to real people in real places, and this is in a series that lives and dies on visceral grittiness.
Tasha: The odd thing about that is, from everything I’ve read and watched, these fights are happening to real people in real places. The commentaries and behind-the-scenes / making-of features on the John Wick movies have all emphasized how heavily they’re based in practical effects, real martial arts, and Keanu Reeves doing his own driving and shooting and fighting. It seems pretty visually obvious that the blood-spatters and other wounds are after-the-fact CGI effects, but Reeves’ physical involvement and commitment on the series is surprisingly high, especially given that he’s in his 50s.
Adi: I believe a lot of it is him, I just have problems with the way the combat scenes were acted and shot — like, the Catacombs are just this long set of corners where he looks around, shoots some guys, and moves on. Whereas the subway scene between Keanu Reeves and Common is fantastic, because you have this clear story about them making their way through the PATH station and onto a train. (Complete with NYC subway riders carefully ignoring them, which I can confirm is 100 percent accurate behavior.)
Tasha: The scene where Reeves and Common trade potshots while playing it casual, and no one around them seems to notice, is one of the film’s best moments, because it’s funny and strange, and like nothing else in the movie. My problem with the Catacombs fight, and several of the other group combats, was that they feel humorless and identical. There are only so many ways for a guy to shoot 50 generic mooks in the head before all the action starts to blur together.
And some of the fights this time around just feel obligatory, as if the filmmakers felt we need one every 15 minutes to earn the “action movie” tag. Sometimes when a new one started, I just sighed, because I knew we were in for another three to five minutes of the same shoulder-throws and double-tap face-shots we’d seen in the last two fights, plus the frustrating "Let's each wait our turn to charge him" business that's been going on at least since martial arts movies of the ‘60s. The John Wick movies are better about this than a lot of films — some of the mooks do have the sense to keep their distance and just keep firing at their target — but way too many goons run at him as if they didn’t notice him killing the last eight guys who tried exactly that.
Adi: One thing I remember liking about the first movie was the sense that John was getting more and more worn-down over the course of it. He’s inhumanly tough, but there are consequences to everything he’s doing. He’s just good enough to power through them. The opening scenes of Chapter 2 — which I loved, by the way — captured this for me, especially because the film uses his increasingly mutilated car to tie the whole arc together.
For most of the movie, though, he seems too disconnected from the damage he’s taking. He can get hit by a car or fall down three flights of stairs and walk it off in a couple of minutes, while everyone else in the movie (except Common) seems to be made of tissue paper by comparison. This also means we don’t have any narrative pretext for mixing up the choreography in response to his physical limits.
Tasha: And given that his physical limits start at a higher setting than everyone else’s, most of the fights don’t seem to challenge him enough to make them as thrilling as they should be. The Catacombs scene is laser tag with real guns — same murky visual aesthetic as a smoke-filled laser tag arena, plus endless barriers to duck around — but for some reason, one player is racking up all the points.
I want to be clear — I was deeply impressed by the visceral action in the original John Wick. The fight choreographer in that movie was Jonathan Eusebio, who also designed the fights in Haywire, The Avengers, and some of the Bourne movies. He does an excellent job of putting together intense but clear combats that look bruising and intimidating and don't have to be cut up into a blur of fast cuts. According to the IMDb, JW2 had a different fight choreographer, and Eusebio was only called in for reshoots, so that may explain the difference between the first film and the second. But there’s also just a case of diminishing returns in any film that keeps returning to the same exact model of combat over and over.
Adi: That’s totally plausible. Also: I feel the same way about the Catacombs. Eventually I would start counting bodies and get to a couple dozen, then give up and wait for Common to show up again. Because apparently he’s the only human on Earth besides John Wick who knows these magic bulletproof suits exist.
Tasha: We keep coming back to Common because the only fights in the movie that feel meaningful are the ones where the other participant is a person with a personality and a cause, instead of an anonymous goon. Even though it's an extremely simple personality and an extremely basic cause.
Adi: It’s also obvious that John isn’t just going to just immediately shoot Common in the head and win the fight.
Tasha: As I said on Twitter, I think everyone in the John Wick world wears bulletproof suits, and the only reason Wick is considered super-deadly is that he's figured out headshots, whereas everyone else aims for the chest. How many times in this film does he get shot in the suit?
But just in general, I wish JW2 had set up more adversaries with personality. Ares (Ruby Rose’s character) gets a lot of buildup, but doesn’t last long. The series of assassins that come after John when his contract goes wide — the busker with the violin, the sumo wrestler, and so forth — mix up the fighting styles a fair bit, but they don’t have names or distinct personalities. They don’t talk. They’re still mooks, they’re just stylish mooks.
Adi: Speaking of Ares, I couldn’t tell whether the movie was subverting expectations, or just doing a bad job of foreshadowing a climactic fight that never really comes. The same goes for the assassination of Gianna, the pivot on which the whole story hinges. Within the course of a few scenes, we go from John Wick saying “I’m the best assassin in the world, and I’m telling you, this lady is unkillable” to “Oh hey, her bodyguard left and she surrendered immediately.” After it establishes things like the fact that she hides weapons in her hair, which feels like a setup for a fight. The movie built up two characters as formidable foils for John, only to dispatch them almost offhandedly. It’s also a little annoying that they’re the two major female ones, although I don’t think that was intentional.
At least Chapter 3 seems to promise more personality-driven choreography — after all, John Wick is supposed to have every independent hired killer in the world out looking for him, presumably including Laurence Fishburne as the secret king of New York panhandlers.
Tasha: Gianna’s surrender didn’t bother me. I think it was well established that she had formidable protection, and John basically bought his way around it through the Continental’s services, which got him into her sanctum. The hard part was always going to be fighting his way out afterward, and he prepared extensively for that. And their confrontation was different from all the others, which automatically made it better, as far as I was concerned. Their conversation teaches us more about who she is, and who he used to be, and where he stands emotionally in the midst of the blackmail that put him in that situation. I respected her decision to go out her own way, instead of just becoming another headshot corpse on the heap. In retrospect, though, it makes me wish she’d been a bigger part of the story from the beginning, so we had more context for and investment in her death.
But overall, I think the face-off between Gianna and John shows one place the series could go — more surprising and informative face-offs like that one, which builds the character and sets up the stakes and motive for Common’s character, and fewer generic mow-‘em-downs where John seems to be running out of unique ways to take down a horde. As the filmmakers look for ways to escalate the action, I’m hoping they escalate the drama, too. What do you want to see in the next John Wick movie?
Adi: I think there’s a high-risk and a low-risk way of making a good Chapter 3. The safe way is to go all-out with the idea that this is an archetype-driven martial arts film, get an amazing choreographer, and throw John Wick up against a series of one-dimensional but distinctive assassins in architecturally interesting locations. (Again, the subway scene comes to mind here — at least the Oculus transit hub was good for something.) Tone down the obvious double-crosses and the lore-dumps, for a plot that fades inoffensively into the background. Throw in a few more dogs. Maybe one of the dogs is an assassin? I’ll have to think about it.
Tasha: It’s already been done! Funded as a short, as a John Wick: Chapter 2 viral campaign.
Adi: Okay, so the more difficult, but interesting, way would be to treat the entire movie as a cat-and-mouse game between John Wick and an archvillain with a personal vendetta, hunting him down now that he’s fair game. This could be someone we know, or a new nemesis — most of the existing characters are thin enough that you’d be starting from near-scratch either way. We’ve had two movies where John is always the smartest, best-prepared guy in the room, going on the offensive against people whose biggest advantage is their hundred-henchman meat shield. I’d like to see him in a position where someone else is setting the frame, making decisions that aren’t purely reactive.
This wouldn’t be a two-hour, two-person standoff, obviously. There’s plenty of time to have the kinds of fights I mentioned above. But you’d also get a larger story that leaves room for the sort of dramatic non-action scenes you mention, where we’re able to learn something about characters besides John. Since the original film is largely known as “the movie where Keanu Reeves kills everyone over a puppy,” it could even be a clever bookend to have another person whose motivations are as comparatively trivial as John’s.
Tasha: What, like John Wick stepped on their pet turtle while running from the latest band of 50 assassins?
Adi: I am totally on board with that, yes.
Tasha: I don’t necessarily care whether the latest villain has a rich motivation or a trivial one. I mean, the stomped-turtle thing does have the advantage of reminding us that these movies only sometimes take themselves fully seriously, which I appreciate. I can see why you don’t like John falling down three flights of stairs and then walking it off… but the scene where he falls down three flights of stairs is directed like a slapstick comedy, and it’s a hoot.
But I’m also entirely fine with the knee-knocking, crazy-colored-subtitle-talking, fairy-tale-spouting villains who consider John Wick the boogeyman, and are throwing every possible resource toward stopping him because they’re absolutely terrified of dying. Either way, I’m just ready for them to get a little more creative about wiping him out. We’ve seen, over and over, that if he’s mobbed by 25 men, he’ll just wrestle three of them while he shoots the other 22 in the face, one at a time. It takes a named character to give him a challenge. So next time around, let’s see him go up against meaningful, scary individuals, not Eazy-Bake Batch-O-Goons™.
Oh, and I really hope he faces off against Lance Reddick’s cool-as-cucumbers concierge Charon before the franchise wraps up. Now that sounds like a fight with some stakes.