John Wick: Chapter 2 follows the original impenetrable assassin as he fights his way through a few dozen expendables and about two hours of screen time. But Chapter 2, as opposed to the original, offers us much more in terms of acting, dialogue, pacing, and believability; it shows us what does not work in an action film.
It's not much to say that Chapter 2 offers us less credibility than the original, which claimed that a mafia boss's son would blindly steal a car and kill the dog of that same mafia boss's best assassin who, as we learn throughout now two movies, every man and his mother recognizes on sight. The premise of the second one, while still forcing John's retirement down our throats like a misshapen bone, exists on a threat: in order to retire, John must fulfill a blood oath he made to a younger Jarvier Bardem lookalike mafioso. John naturally wants out of this oath, but another character warns him that if he kills the mafioso or doesn't fulfill the oath, he's dead. But why, I must ask, would the threat of death mean anything to the world's most anti-social Baba Yaga "ghost" assassin? I'm fairly certain multiple folks threatened to kill John in the first movie, and that didn't end too badly for him. But, like certain internet-distributed videos, do we really watch John Wick for the plot?
The answer to the above question, under most circumstances, is no. Do I believe that, as purported by Taken, human traffickers casually hang out at every European airport 24/7? Still no, but Taken and John Wick succeed at least partially in tricking us to forget such questions with ever-increasing fight-scenes and, if you'll excuse the colloquialism, general badassery. Once Liam Neeson begins killing people, he doesn't stop—at least the intensity of his situation doesn't stop—until he saves his daughter. It's one swift and fun ride that doesn't grant enough time for us to think, "that was bullshit." The problem with John Wick: Chapter 2 is that it does not fulfill the ever-growing tension required for such badass-driven action films to succeed. Chapter 2 begins with a short cinematic chase, a fight scene, then downtime. Suddenly a house is burning, and again downtime. Then a brief party infiltration deemed minutes before "impossible," gun-shooting, and downtime. This continues throughout the movie with multiple supposed climaxes, leaving the viewer not excited for whatever comes next but rather wondering what time it is and when will this end? We don't even know Wick's end goal (and no, I'm not going to believe "retirement" for the tenth time). John Wick is practically immortal, but his writers are not. Even the main climax, which was supposed to wow us with visual confusion, bright lights, mirrors, and an ultimately useless female badass, felt like a cheap ripoff of the skyscraper fight scene in Skyfall and left me uninterested in either John's or the mafioso's fates.
And now for something slightly different. Watch Chapter 2 and pay careful attention to the dialogue. Notice that most characters, with a couple exceptions (a literal couple, I believe), are incapable of forming sentences of more than a handful of words. Keanu Reeve's John Wick seems the least capable despite being suspiciously fluent in Russian, Italian, ASL, English, and possibly Hebrew. (I get that Hollywood is infatuated with the genius archetype, but I'm not going to believe a human scum hitman understands five languages fluently.) Of course short dialogue, by itself, is not bad. Take an excerpt from Hemingway's short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place":
"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.
"He was in despair."
"How do you know it was nothing?"
"He has plenty of money."
Without knowing the story, this excerpt works to characterize three people, while Chapter 2's short dialogue only functions to aid the plot and sound cool. Strung together without care, such dialogue creates a staccato rhythm. It feels like a stutter. It creates discomfort. It can be boring. It can be annoying. And only when it ends do we realize how wonderful a little variation is. So how does it work with Hemingway? Well, here's the sentence following the above excerpt: They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. An extreme example, but it demonstrates my point. Rhythm, both in writing and in film, needs variation, and Chapter 2 fails to provide sufficient variation in dialogue, shot length, action sequences, and characters. We would hope at least the acting stayed strong.
Alas, Keanu Reeves can't act. Anyone who thinks otherwise should watch Bram Stoker's Dracula. That said, John Wick isn't exactly a difficult role: look serious, don't smile, be angry, don't show other emotions, and do that for two hours (The Matrix with less naivety). Yet even that seems too difficult for Keanu, who chokes his way through such simple lines as "I'll kill them all" that I couldn't help laughing the way I would at a small puppy barking aggressively at a full-grown Doberman. This isn't to say other actors were better (the edgy Ruby Rose didn't even speak and hardly managed her role), but for the main camera hog of the movie, Keanu was a disappointment. I dare say even Jason Stratham would have been more fun to watch; he at least does naturally what Keanu has to twitch and jerk and growl for to achieve. (Although his depth is limited, Jason has a character and an attitude; Keanu is a blank face that can't really be made to do anything.) It's unfortunate that, in trying to be a better story, the sequel to John Wick only exposed itself for what it is: a medley of bullets, anger, and silly situations held aloft only by our blinding lust for violent cinema and a $40 million budget. Not even its deus ex machina bullet-proof suits can protect it from that sentence.