“What happened, John?” asks Viggo Tarasov toward the end of 2014’s John Wick. “We were professionals. Civilized.”
This is around the time Tarasov gets a knife lodged in his chest — courtesy of the man in question, John Wick, whom he and other underworld criminals call Baba Yaga: “the boogeyman.” Not the kind of guy you want to piss off, you’d think. But at the start of the movie, Tarasov’s manchild of a son, Iosef, breaks into Baba Yaga’s home, kills his puppy, and steals his 1969 Boss 429 Mustang, a car as sleek and dangerous as a silver bullet. To stop him from seeking revenge on his son, Tarasov sets assassins on Wick’s tail. By the time of this little speech, Wick has already successfully killed or evaded them all. “Do I look civilized to you?” asks Wick before he finishes him off.
Wick is a maniac — but a relatable one. Iosef’s violation was no mere break-in or puppy murder, after all, but a call to war. Bonnie had Clyde, Thelma had Louise, and John Wick had a dog: a partner in crime, sure, but more importantly, a companion that allowed Wick, who’d left the killing business behind for love, to imagine a better future for himself. The puppy, Daisy, was a gift from his recently buried wife. “Now that I have found my peace,” read her note with the dog, “find yours.”
In the world of John Wick, which continues Friday with the release of John Wick: Chapter 2, there’s no such thing as peace. The violence in the Wick films favors hand-to-hand, close-up battles of the will, precise kill shots, and a knife or two. It deservedly inspires comparisons to scenes by Hong Kong action geniuses like John Woo. But the sense of a distinct social world that’s closing in on itself, from which Wick cannot escape, is the Wick movies’ unique shtick. It’s heightened in Chapter 2, which expands outward from the first film’s premise to show us the hidden world order to which Wick belongs, a miniature universe of criminals and their henchmen. There’s an entire service industry of cleaners, doctors, bankers, and weapon sellers aiding men like Wick. They have their own currency and their own code. Hierarchies of hidden power and influence preside over it all.
That greater sense of world-building is what keeps the carnage in these movies from feeling arbitrary. It’s part of what sets the Wick films apart from other action films. The other part is the action itself. The directors of the original, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, are both veteran stuntmen. For Chapter 2, Stahelski directs alone. The fight scenes he dreams up in Chapter 2 have a rare sense of danger and spontaneity. More impressively, they heighten our sense of Wick’s character: his focus, skill, and utter singularity. The plot of Chapter 2 is essentially an excuse to draw Wick back into the business and turn everyone against him. It’s a way of showing us how big this criminal underworld is, such that entire fight scenes seemingly play out in an alternate universe happening invisibly alongside our own. It all gives the violence an irresistible grandeur. Wick isn’t merely a man on a revenge mission; by the end, he’s a man trying to fight his way through an entire social order. The John Wick universe is entirely defined by social bonds, be they friendships, debts, or, in Wick’s case, blood oaths. Violence breaks these bonds — hence the intimacy of it. Wick shoots his enemies from such short distance that his gun seemingly cuts through them like it’s a sword. It feels personal. His fights play out like negotiations, as if he’s asking, Just when is it that you plan to give up and die?
Stahelski sends Wick cascading down the stairs of Roman ruins mid-fight. He has him shoot his way out of a literal hall of mirrors, and fire into a crowd at Lincoln Center. It’s surreal — and not. The filmmaking is knowingly romantic — Wick is an astonishing force to watch — but the director doesn’t let us forget the implications of shooting or stabbing someone. That’s no romance. The violence Wick enacts on others feels unusually visceral; you can tell the filmmaker has done some thinking about what a gunshot does to a body. We feel every kill — even as we indulge the fantasy, laughing along with an admiring foe as he says, “I can assure you that the stories about this man — if nothing else — have been watered down.” Wick is such a marvel that even his enemies talk about him with smiles on their faces. He’s a legend, as abstract as air. But his kill shots are concrete reminders of his existence.
You can say the heavy backstory — the dying wife; the puppy as a last, lost symbol of hope; the criminal looking to “get out of the game” — is maudlin, even painfully familiar from every movie of its kind. But in truth these facts of Wick’s character are mere scaffolding for a story about a man we can only understand through genre tropes and myths. They’re not a way in: They’re a way around. As played with cold aplomb by Keanu Reeves, Wick is a man with unexpressed torrents of rage and sadness bubbling beneath that slick exterior. His face is calm, inexpressive, practically bulletproof. Reeves, an actor whose greatest talent might be lulling us into thinking he has no range and then pulling it out of nowhere, is perfectly cast. He growls and grimaces through his beard like a Yung Eastwood in the making — but quietly, with splashes of Alain Delon’s coolness circa Le Samourai.
Even with all that backstory, Wick’s psychological profile adds up to being not much more than an unknowable killing machine, a man whose rage is translated directly into action. John Wick may feel, but he doesn’t think. He acts, ferociously so — hence his status as myth. But Stahelski has made a movie in which what resonates most is the reality of that violence. We can instill John Wick, the character, with a sense of mythic fantasy that plays to our need for entertainment. But the violence itself — down to the heightened realism of the way gunshots sound — keeps disrupting that fantasy.
Personally, I’d been wondering whether gun violence in movies would some day go the way of smoking in movies — that is, not gone, but deliberately downplayed. But it seems more likely that these movies will feel like anti-war war movies, which use the violence to make a political point about how fucked up it is. That’s not what John Wick is going for by any means, but it’s the unintended effect its realism had on me. Chapter 2 wears its sense of brutality like a badge of integrity — and maybe it is, for cutting through the noise of mere entertainment with violence that startles us. I don’t want to live in the world of these films. But god am I happy to watch.