John Wick Is An Action Hero As Unhappy Workaholic
It's one of the reasons why Keanu Reeves’ new sequel is so satisfying.
John Wick lives in New Jersey.
So do a lot of other people, but for most of them, it’s not the same statement that it is for John. John lives in New Jersey because New Jersey is not New York, and cities like New York and (as we see in John Wick: Chapter 2) Rome are home to a byzantine economy of assassins and kingpins. John is done with all that: He got out, got married (Bridget Moynahan plays the late Helen, who only appears in photos, videos, and flashbacks), bought an airy modernist house, started wearing jeans, and acquired a series of adorable dogs, the second of which (spoiler?) does not share the grisly fate of the dog from the first John Wick. John didn’t just leave his old life behind, he plunged himself into suburbia as if he could ward off the past with the inconvenience of having to take the PATH train. Like many a former urbanite, his was a quality-of-life move, but an especially complicated one.
There have been approximately one billion movies made about characters who try to leave their extralegal lives behind and run into the old “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” But none have used the concept of getting out of the game as a basis for world-building the way John Wick and its blissfully bruising, only-slightly-less-novel sequel have. In stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski’s films, the line between “working” and “retired” is a firm one, defined by regulations that are even more elaborate and explicated in Chapter 2. There is no dabbling in the John Wick series — it’s either kill-or-be-killed or go completely normcore. When John goes back to work in the first film, and does so again at the start of the second, he puts on a suit like he's going into the office. He's the action hero as workaholic, never able to really pull himself away.
It was John's appearance, in retirement, as what Goodfellas' Henry Hill would call a "schnook" that made him seem like easy pickings in the first John Wick, a revenge-mourning drama. But it's the rules that get John killing again in Chapter 2, when a Camorra higher-up named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to collect on a marker owed him by John from back in the day — one that, having unretired, John isn’t in a place to turn down. The result is another brutal but unexpectedly elegant action movie that takes as much pleasure in the beauty of how wet pavement reflects light as it does in the splatter of blood across a wall.
Credit Stahelski's ability to shoot fight scenes and gun battles with a cleanness that makes you realize how chopped up they are in most other movies — using longer takes and full-body shots, all the better to appreciate the lyrical prowess with which John slams some henchman’s head on a counter and inserts a pencil into his brain. But it’s the details of screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s universe that allow Chapter 2 to be more than just a beautifully made shoot-’em-up. The new film is even more explicit about and entertaining in how it treats John’s old life as akin to a murderous but tradition- and perk-heavy social club.
He meets, for instance, with a sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz) who walks John through weapons like they were wines. We get a glimpse into the room full of secretarial staff housed in the underworld hub that is Winston's (Ian McShane) Continental hotel, where membership files are maintained and bounty notices are delivered by pneumatic tube and punched into ancient computers. There’s a scene in which a battered John sits in the neutral territory of the hotel’s bar alongside fellow hitpeople Cassian (Common) and Ares (Ruby Rose), both of whom had, minutes before, been doing their best to kill him. The shadow society they're all a part of may be brutally violent, but it's also absurdly civilized.
John Wick laid out the basics of its codified criminal community, but Chapter 2 builds from them an intricate world that has the claustrophobic quality of any professional industry. It’s gossipy, backbiting, and cutthroat (lol); its high-end trappings — the plushly clubby lounges, the duck fat potatoes savored by a baddie, the tailor who sews bulletproof armor into John’s custom suit, the museum in which Santino takes meetings — only enhance the sensation that being a top-ranked killer is akin to being an investment banker, a high-flying master of the universe living only for the rush of taking out competitors and raking in cash.
John may have an incredible gift for violence (a character asks if he’s addicted to revenge), but Chapter 2 makes him appear, in the end, less like a figure out of nightmares and more like someone who's a slave to the terrible job he’s so unfortunately great at. It makes John Wick a poetically unhappy sort of badass, the role an ideal fit for Reeves’ slightly faded beauty and aura of melancholy. Swagger is even less of an interest to him in the second film than in the first. He's a character with nothing to prove except how tired of everything he is, the assassin as heartbroken executive, stripped of the trappings of the domestic life he tried to make an escape into. New Jersey, it turns out, wasn’t far enough.