Directed by Chad Stahelski (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
These, the opening lines of Homer's Iliad, rattled around in my brain as I watched this jaw-droppingly gorgeous, visceral sequel, the second chapter of Keanu Reeves' epic comeback Renaissance, John Wick. Despite its ultra-sleek contemporary trappings, John Wick: Chapter 2 is mythic by design, and that mythological structure brings it closer to epic tales like The Odyssey and the Greek Myths than any modern-day action thriller. All of the meticulous world-building from the first installment is elaborated on and added to here; literally creating its own veritable mythology, with specific rules, customs, God-like figures, and sacred objects. The fact that the second act is set in Rome is no coincidence. These are the tales of a man driven by grief and the heedless wills of the Gods, and Chapter 2 is the next stage of his journey through his own literal Underworld.
John is once again attempting to go back into retirement (SPOILER: he's an almost supernatural assassin, from a hidden underworld of professional assassins that exist outside normal society - also, if you're reading this and you've never seen the first film, stop right there, back up, and go watch it, because you have no business being here), with a new dog that he refuses to name (reminding me of the old superstitious practice of not naming a child until it had reached a certain age for fear of its premature death, or Holly Golightly refusing to name Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's; "until me and things go together") - but his fellows in the Underground seem hellbent on preventing that. Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his door, insisting on collecting the debt John owes him (in this mythology, the debt is personified by a "marker" - a death's-head effigy with a thumbprint in blood from the debtor inside). He wants John to kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so he can take her place at the High Table (another new bit of mythological detail for John's universe - 12 master assassins that control the Underground in major cities throughout the world). Santino blows up John's house when he refuses. And so, he's given no choice.
The Greek/Roman and mythological motifs are strong throughout, not limited to John's time in Rome; in New York we see an art gallery where statues of the Gods line a cooly-lit room, and a dramatic scene with Winston (Ian McShane), proprietor of the secret chain of assassin hotels, The Continental, is framed with a towering effigy of Kali, the Indian goddess of Death. This is a modern myth, but a grand myth in the style of old nonetheless. We are not meant to question the reality of a tale rooted in fantasy, rather connect emotionally to feelings and images, and the grand scope of the tale being presented. The second chapter made clear to me that John Wick is going to be a trilogy about grief - and in these three chapters, its stages. If the first film is numbness and denial, John channeling his emptiness into avenging Daisy (the puppy)'s death and his stolen, beloved Mustang at the hands of another, the second film is rage. Rage at the cruel hand of the world, of perhaps the Gods, who've thrust him back into a chaotic violence he had hoped to escape. Even the name of his dead wife rings of myths long told: Helen, like Helen of Troy, destined to lead men to their deaths - destined to lead John back into the darkness he'd hoped he had survived.
So much of the film is devoted to elaborate set-pieces and extended fighting sequences, and in this way it seemed as though John is painted here more than ever as an Achilles, a Perseus, an Odysseus - grandly heroic, but deeply tragic and somehow still human. The way he eviscerates foe after foe (hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls) makes him almost god-like in his rage - a rage that is also somehow holy (even Winston at one point refers to him metaphorically as a "Priest"). In John's rage, we too find catharsis, a god-like purification. Reeves' understated and emotional performance has strengthened the resonance of John's journey so much so that the first film was a breakaway hit that nobody expected, enabling the filmmakers to sign off on two more films (this being the second, the third in the works - which is good, due to the cliffhanger ending for Chapter 2). John Wick will undoubtedly go down as one of his best roles, ever. His incredible physicality is truly something to behold, and it's well known that he is quite insistent on doing as many of his own scenes as possible. His fearless dedication to this world and this character bring it all a moving, affecting quality so many action films lack entirely.
The color palette (neon blues and pinks, sea greens, splashes of dramatic red) and some incredible shot composition (the framing of ancient Roman architecture, the maze of a Modern Art installment, the glowing shrouded interior of a hidden passageway) make this mesmerizing to watch beyond the characters and grand scope of storytelling. I appreciated that the colors are somewhat different from the first film - they are beholden to different aspects of intense emotion, and such meticulous attention to the impact of color, not only stylistically but psychologically, which I appreciated deeply. In a grand tale, we need grand, dramatic gestures, and such gestures are not confined only to dialogue and plot. The surroundings here are just as important if not more so than any of the players. In Rome we find there's a complex barter system in the assassin's world, built upon the intricate gold coins used in the Continental, complete with a "Sommelier" (Peter Serafinowicz! I love when he pops up in films unexpectedly) and meticulous tailors. Our tragic hero must look the part, and his world is happy to oblige.
I can't say I entirely understood why Ares (Ruby Rose) is mute - I contemplated the idea that she is meant to be Oracle-like in her strangeness and androgyny. Once more, her name nods to the mythological nature of this story, especially this chapter of it - God of War, violent and untamed. The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne - Matrix reunion!) with his flocks of birds also rings of the spirit of war; in the Greek and Roman mythos they were sometimes associated with Ares as well. So rage is the driving force for this period of John's evolving grief. The only way out is through. As harrowed as he is by the end of this segment, John still has a way longer to go - his rage has managed to alienate the few friends he had left. It remains to be seen if he'll get out of the Underworld alive. But damn, is it ablution - like a baptism drenched in blood - to join him in his quest for redemption.
As a side note, I was sad Willem Dafoe wasn't in this chapter in a flash-back. His Marcus was one of the best parts of Chapter 1. Here's hoping for a Dafoe dream sequence in Chapter 3.