Photogenic Keanu Reeves is paraded with pride in action film about asserting individuality against rigid rules

David G. Hughes on Chad Stahelski’s ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ (2017)

As a muscle car roars its way through nocturnal New York streets in chase, silent movie star Buster Keaton makes a brief cameo performing one of his famously dangerous stunts. Projected onto a passing building in the opening shots, the John Wick films are a recrudescent re-emergence of this cinematic lineage and state it as such. Keaton’s work, as the industrial forefather of stunt art, personifies a mode of spectacle cinema rarely seen in today’s auditorium. The pleasure derived from watching exquisitely executed choreography to instigate gasps or laughter bears more in common with the circus, vaudeville, and theme park ride rather than narrative refinement.

John Wick: Chapter 2 proudly continues Keaton’s tradition of comedy and physicality, ambitious in showmanship and nonchalant about narrative acumen. Terse with words and excessive with action, this sequel to 2014’s sleeper hit John Wick (2014), like its pre-narrative heroes before it, privileges images over words. To witness its grace is to see a cinema of purity.

There is little pretence or intellectual ambition involved here but the film is no less sophisticated, lovingly made or artfully assembled. The film centres itself around the expectation that we derive pleasure from seeing images and hearing sounds. Choices of lighting, costume and colour (resplendent cinematography by Dan Lausten) are all meticulously selected as a source of maximal and indulgent pleasure. Keanu Reeves proves to be a sleek fit for the role of phlegmatic assassin John Wick, his svelte and photogenic demeanour paraded with grace and pride. Stunt-man turned Director Chad Stahelski loves his leading man, understands his appeal and shoots him accordingly as a killer on a catwalk.

Credit must go to the under-appreciated actor who, at 52, is not only genetically spectacular—his bone structure and hair serving as a large part of the film’s attraction—but is a dedicated and disciplined worker. His adept skill as a filmmaker, martial-artist, shootist and dancer is not simply a result of his God-given beauty, it is his training. Reeve’s is a star on a multitude of levels, recalling the silent-era greats, the Hong Kong action kings and the Hollywood icon simultaneously.

Taking the story international, the city of Rome functions as the perfect picturesque sandbox for the character to play in. The city’s religious and Gothic iconography colludes in characterisation, alluding to Wick’s mythical reputation while also positioning the character as an angel of death seeking retribution. Within the world of Wick, ugly things happen in beautiful places and beautiful people do ugly things. Stahelski, as a former stunt-man, is not only ideally suited to deliver inspired feats of majestic action, he has an aesthetes eye and a cine-literate knowledge base. He’s a natural. Beauty is a staple of his world-building, always complimenting the scenes of aesthetic violence with the proper grandiose setting. A sequence within the Baths of Caracalla is what they call a tour-de-force, deliberately blurring the distinction between fighting and dancing. As the shootout heads onto the dance-floor, the operatic pop of Ciscandra Nostalghia and the throbbing bass of Le Castle Vania scores the action with an exuberant musicality. You may find yourself tapping your feet as Reeves judo grapples his opponents into submission and fires precise head-shots in harmonious accordance with the music.

The casting of the androgynous model and DJ Ruby Rose as mute assassin Ares is highly complementary to the films aesthetic associations and stylistic ambition. Rose is an artist acutely aware of how physicality and performance are expressions of identity, exploring themes of transsexuality, bisexuality and androgyny in her own work. Her characters use of sign language reiterates the point that our physical gestures determine our communication. Likewise, Reeves, who has always fit awkwardly within the hard-body tradition of action movies that critics have attempted to situate him in, has always had unique femininity. His boyish good looks, long swaying hair and softly-spoken voice have never placed him alongside Stallone’s and Schwarzenegger’s with ease. In a genre usually inundated with masculinist gender affirmations, to have gender bravado removed from the equation, certainly when considering that all the assassins are regarded with parity regardless of gender, is no small feat.

Is it too much to suggest that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a radical declaration of empowering androgyny? In its conception of what is beautiful and who is powerful, the exquisite images of the film have an empowering potential. Certainly, the film feels like a fashion photoshoot, a statement of style and individuality at the core of people and things. Wick and Ares fighting in a hall of mirrors place the two in a position of narcissistic and reflective combat. Taken in this manner, John Wick’s story is an expression of the difficulty one encounters when attempting to find your own self in a world of rules, traditions and boundaries.

When the film goes overboard in its gun pornography, a humorous self-reflexive acknowledgement of its own absurdity serves to instantiate itself from political reality and exist in a hyperreal universe. This is more like a comic book or a video game, portraying a secret society of assassins that operate with their own currency and through innuendo. The film’s grasp of comedy, especially during sequences of physical action, would have the silent movie greats proud to call it their own. A killer sequence sees a wounded Wick stroll through New York on foot whilst evading countless would-be assassins, combating those who confront him whilst avoiding the attention of the public. Silencers, pencils and obese hitmen are all used to wonderful affect.

Scenes like this had the audience in rapturous adoration of the creativity and humour. With such a strong rapport with its audiences, watching John Wick: Chapter 2 may be as close to the experience of seeing a silent comedy in the early 20th Century, where the ‘riffraff’ and ‘unsophisticated’ masses had a riotous old time at the cinema, and letting it be known—vocally. This is not an art film, but it is a testament to the art of cinema, its capacity to capture poetry in motion twenty-four times per second.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is available in UK cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.