The journey of the gun bobs and weaves through Hollywood history with expected gusto; from Westerns to Hitchcock thrillers to Eastwood and Bronson, time and again they’ve helped define heroes, create villains, and put bloody ends to countless fictional conflicts. Growing up watching Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and a horde of wannabe toughs shoot their way through a two hour narrative I figured they’d define heroics onscreen forever, but a funny thing happened—as Sly himself pointed out not long ago, Michael Keaton showed up with that damn cape in 1989, and the comic book revolution was on. It took another decade for the effects to catch up to the ideas, but by the time X-Men came out in 2000 it was clear that the multiplexes were undergoing a sea change. Not that the guns have disappeared, but they tend to get incinerated by laser beams from Iron Man’s hand before they can do much damage. Two years ago, a scrappy Keanu Reeves vehicle steeped in 70s and 80s tough guy cinema and decidedly against the superhero grain called John Wick became a surprise hit, and this past week saw the inevitable sequel roll out. No capes to be found in either of these movies. To quote RoboCop baddie favorite Clarence J Boddicker, we get plenty of guns, guns, guns.
First, a spoiler alert: No animals are harmed onscreen in John Wick Chapter 2, unlike with the PETA revenge porn story of the original. John has a new dog who briefly provides companionship, not drama, this time around. Unlike the slow and occasionally mystifying burn of the opening of the first movie, JW2 kicks off with several bangs and crashes as a loose end you may have forgotten gets tied up, then we get down to the business of once again dragging the noble hitman out of retirement to vanquish small armies of men in black suits sporting walkie talkie earpieces and large rifles. The contrivances by which this takes place are more or less effectively laid out, delivered by a deft confluence of new baddies and old friends from the original. To go into details wouldn’t necessarily spoil the fun, but it would also be beside the point. We’re here to see Reeves run around kicking, punching, stabbing and oh yes, shooting his way through Europe and New York City, everyone knows it, and the filmmakers provide it in spades. The cheeky alternative universe of crime and very special hotel rules is on full display, with several fun new layers and, by the end, an easy to adopt idea that in the Wickverse, Uber and Lyft side gigs have been replaced by the occasional assassin job.
Perhaps the unintentional strength of a film charged with delivering over the top murderous mayhem is that, this time around, we don’t get the puppy excuse. In fact, in a key scene involving John’s return to work as well as the film’s denoument (which yes, fans, doesn’t just leave the door wide open for a third chapter, it demands it) both pause to remind you that Wick isn’t a hero, he’s a devil. From the very beginning of John Wick Chapter 2, we see the lead try to once again exit his life of crime by employing the one thing he’s good at, murderous ultra violence. The clear contradiction is an honest one and the filmmakers don’t flinch from it; John’s a bad man, and he doesn’t get the happily ever after that the first movie briefly tricked us into thinking he’s due. I don’t want to make it sound as if Chapter 2 is a leaden antihero slog, because the primary goal remains action packed entertainment, and we get plenty of it (some of it quite funny, in keeping with the original’s often glib meta tone). But living in an age where gun violence has gone from a gleeful gallop across the movie screen to horrid true crime stories on the nightly news, it wouldn’t quite sit right to have John get to have his cake and it eat too, and one gets the sense from this latest installment, not to mention the direction it’s heading, that director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad understand this as well.