By Kevin Scott
This is just my opinion. It has no empirical credibility, and is solely based on my observations as a 30 plus years action movie aficionado. So I guess I’ve got some street cred if you look at it that way. The action film has evolved and devolved more than any other genre of film that I can think of. It began mostly as a pulp fiction black and white staple of early cinema that mostly dealt with gangsters, cops, and robbers. With the proliferation of color, the action film became a polished and refined saga of interwoven plot details, high profile directors and actors, and boundary pushing grit and violence. The incarnation that I cut my teeth on happened to the ones from the mid 1980’s and early 90’s. Very few were ever blockbusters, but all included a completely unrealistically glorious formula of explosions, bullets, and an indestructible, unstoppable protagonist. That protagonist was the baddest dude ever, but had a moral code that kept how much carnage he could inflict in check. The majority of these films found their fan base on home video. Because of its humble platform of the videocassette, “serious” film fans denounced the action flick as the Pabst Blue Ribbon of film, made more for the escapism of the blue collar set with no redeeming social value and a superficial plot at best that played more to the baser senses than promoting any kind of intellectual stimulation. I knew they were wrong all along, and if the fact that you can get Pabst Blue Ribbon now in almost any caliber of bar doesn’t spell it out, things that play to the baser senses can be elevated to an institution all their own.
Enter John Wick. From the beginning there was something special about the first film. I don’t know anyone who saw it in its theatrical release. Most heard about it through word of mouth, and I bet this sequel is the first time that most John Wick fans have seen him on the big screen. It happened to be one of those films that came out of nowhere, and found its audience after the fact on DVD and Blu-ray. It also had a very gratuitous amount of violence and gunplay, a revenge arc, and a protagonist that everyone in the film describes with mythic and legendary status. I just described those films that I compared to Pabst Blue Ribbon just a few seconds ago. John Wick, however managed to take those elements and combine them with some of the best attributes of its more respected action film ancestors. It began as a collaboration between its star, Keanu Reeves and the stunt coordinators from the “Matrix” films. John Wick was also conceived from the beginning to be a trilogy. So I can’t help but wonder that some intricate plot details about an elite underworld of bosses and assassins were planned very deliberately for the purpose of world building and some exposition in future films. I’m gonna go ahead and say it…John Wick elevated the action film genre and breathed some much needed life into it by combining everything that was good from all the previous incarnations into something that derailed all preconceived notions and expectations about films with dudes’ names for the title.
Thankfully, the first John Wick was bankable enough that the intended second film came to fruition. So it begs the question of whether the second film can live up to the “killed three guys with a pencil” mystique of the first. John Wick 2 begins with some closure on chapter one. John finds his 1969 Mustang in a NYC garage owned by the Russian mafia, and operated by the brother of Viggo, the mobster from part one. An epic car chase ensues, and John gets his car back. He thinks he’s finally finished, and he and his rescue dog are headed back home. John does some masonry work in his basement and buries his suit, his guns, and his coins for good. Once again, his retirement is short lived when another figure from his past shows at up his door. Santino D’Antonio holds a marker for John. A marker is a gold disc with a very ornate skull design that opens up to reveal a literal blood oath that requires a favor be paid back in full. On the night John got his out for the impossible task that gave him his freedom after he met Helen, it seems that he couldn’t have pulled it off without Santino. Santino comes calling, and now demands that John assassinate his sister, who is about to take the seat their father left her at the high table of international gangsters. Santino wants that seat at all costs. Death is the only option if anyone refuses a marker, but John pushes his luck once more and refuses. Since Santino knows that Wick is the only one that can pull off such a high level hit, he takes everything that John has left away, and truly leaves him with nothing to lose but his life.
John agrees to make the hit, and goes to Rome. Anyone that loves the Wick saga thus far can appreciate the montage of checking in to Rome Continental Hotel, and all the getting of the guns, knives, and bulletproof black suits all under the disguise of the likes of upscale tailors and wine stewards. What unfurls thereafter finds Wick once again as persona non grata, and on the business end of assassins like the mute tomboy Ares.
I love action flicks of all kinds. It’s like pizza, even when it’s really cheap it’s at least palatable. John Wick however, is a game changer. It has ushered in a Renaissance and brings some gravitas back to the genre since the glory days of the last guy that drove a classic Mustang in an epic car chase. Keanu Reeves has done action before, but that’s not the only thing that’s been in his wheelhouse. Like him or not, he undeniably brings the stoic, tortured, and focused character of John Wick to life with a searing intensity that plays on a minimalist approach on dialogue with a pretty clever undertone of civility amidst the ruthlessness. John Wick has the distinction of ushering in a revival of the cosmopolitan action flick that delivers on all levels.