Just as John Wick drew from gaming as much as cinema, so John Wick: Chapter 2 feels like a gaming sequel as much as a film sequel – a broader, more expansive, and more challenging iteration of the franchise, whose spatial schemes and styles change as rapidly as when moving from one level of a game to the next. This time, an open contract is very close to being placed on Wick’s life, which would mean that any agent from around the world who happens to belong to the Continental network can reap the rewards if they happen to take him out. In order to forestall that, Wick takes on a job in Europe, but even then meaning he can’t really trust a single person he meets, even or especially if they have a prior history. As a result, John Wick: Chapter 2 is both more interpersonal and more global than the first film, detailing a much broader range of relationships at the same time that it evokes an even colder and more indifferent criminal fraternity. It’s more episodic, too – more like a series of levels in a game – giving Chad Stahelski free rein to indulge in a series of even more baroque and self-contained set pieces, all of which seem to exist in a free-floating world of their own.
This time around, there’s also an awareness that John Wick himself has entered into the popular imagination as an embodiment of “focus, commitment, and sheer fucking will.” Too hyperbolic to be quite taken seriously, but too serious to ever quite be taken as camp either, Wick is a character in the same way that gaming avatars are characters, and so spends most of his time equipping himself for the challenge ahead. In one terrific scene, he buys a gun, then a suit, then some wine, from his “people” in Rome, investing in one lifestyle accoutrement after another to make sure that his poise with his gun – the main posture of the film – is as perfectly appointed as possible. While the fight sequences and shootouts are still as dazzling as ever, that fixation with approaching his target in just the right way means that Wick here feels more like a figure out of a stealth game, rather than a classic first-person shooter, navigating his way through a world of obscure, occluded evil.
Given that stealth tends to be one of the most atmospheric gaming genres in terms of establishing place and atmosphere, it makes sense that John Wick: Chapter 2 is much more fixated on the Continental than the first film. Within the Continental, everything centres on exchange-value – what you can get and give in return – meaning that the tokens that count for currency within the criminal organisation also play a much bigger role here, and often substitute for conversation, and character interaction, entirely. At moments, it feels as if Stahelski has managed to whittle the niceties of a screenplay itself down to these transactional moments, in much the same way that games tend to provide the most texture for those encounters that can enhance the gamer’s progression through the world if approached in the right way. It’s not just the fact of this system of exchange, however, but its rigidity, that drives the film, since within the Continental the rules of exchange define everything, even or especially when they are taken to the point of absurdity and insanity, as evinced in one bizarre series of exchanges in which a criminal hires Wick to assassinate his sister, the head of the Italian mafia, and then finds himself compelled to revenge her death,
All that is conducted in a deadpan, affectless register, but the effect is never quite ironic or satirical, although it is often darkly comic. Instead, Stahelski evokes a radically othered global economy, based around bloodsport and an abiding sense of fatalism, rather than any claims to rationality or predictability. While the Continental may be cutting-edge in terms of its reach and scope, its administration is suffused with an arcane retrofuturism – carrier pigeons, typewriters, physical archives – that reach back into a much more ritualistic, decadent and ceremonial past in order to make sense of the economic present. Even more than the first film, that elevates the minimal utterances of Stahelski’s script to an operatic, melodramatic pitch, which frequently seems to be aiming for the austerity and sublimity of epic poetry: “And what was her name, this woman whose life has ended my own?” “Helen.”
This pervasive sense of decadence works especially well once the action moves to Europe, as Stahelski proves to be as irreverent about the local textures of Rome, in particular, as he was about those of New York in the first film. The most stunning set piece is a dance party in the Colosseum, where strobe lights and Eurodance beats pulsate across catacombs and ruins, in a post-national space of flows in which the Continent has been replaced by the Continental, and geographic criminal affiliations have been subsumed into a broader and more amorphous economic network. This time around, driving is more of a part of Wick’s mission as well – the film actually opens with him recovering his car – which forms part of a broader tendency, on Stahelski’s part, to elide individual figures from his cityscapes, either presenting people in mass, or skulking, like Wick, around the edge of barren, vacuous voids.
For all the eeriness of the European sequences, however, this sense of placelessness is still clearer in the New York sequences, presumably because Stahelski himself is from the United States, meaning that he has to work doubly hard to estrange us from it. In a brilliant move, he chooses to shoot a sustained chase sequence in some of the city’s newest stations on the recently built Q line – stations that, by design, don’t look anything like the rest of the New York Subway – while a lengthy shoot-out scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art divests this lofty institute of any of its traditional cultural warmth, subsuming it into the same cold, clinical, new world order that suffuses the rest of the film. In fact, not only does this chase refuse to acknowledge the particularities of the Met in any way, but it concludes with a standoff in the midst of an austere installation piece – a concatenation of mirrors, glass and steel that feels like the common denominator underyling all the various spaces in the film, which beyond a certain point all feel redudible to this austere and inhuman spatial syntax.
What John Wick: Chapter 2 adds to the original, then, is an even more rigorous vision of a new kind of organized crime, since the last film in which the sheer organisation of organized crime was so thoroughly reinvented was probably Michael Man’s Heat, which is really saying something. Time and again, Stahelski makes it clear that this organisation is a spatial and architectural principle as much as anything else, as the Continental proceeds by absorbing the period fixtures and local textures of the cities it colonises into a sleek corporate shell, too austere to ever feel like a home, but too streamlined to be emphatically brutalist either. In other words, this is organized crime as an exercise in formalism and internal consistency above all else, meaning that the consequences are dire for Wick when he chooses to break the cardinal rule of the Continental and conduct business on Continental grounds. In the final scene, the head of the Continental, played by Ian McShane, meets Wick in Central Park and, at a click, causes everyone around him to pause, and then continue, thereby revealing that they are all assassins, that an open contract has been placed on Wick’s life, and that the full weight of the Continental’s arsenal will shortly be trained against him. With only one hour’s grace period, Wick flees from Central Park, now divested of any localism and absorbed into a network of nebulous global forces, and into the third film, which promises to be even more visceral than the first two, if this stunning ending is anything to go by.