TL;DR review – both are good to great action movies. Keanu can act but not deliver dialog. Storytelling is not all verbal.
The John Wick movies take place in a slightly-fantasy version of New York. Not full on Harry Potter fantasy but it’s a world where there are hitmen everywhere (and I mean, EVERYWHERE, especially in Chapter 2), they are semi-organized and the police pretty doesn’t exist except to deliver funny dialog. But most of the fantasy is in the world building. The fights and stunts are very grounded, very ‘tactical’ as opposed to a wire-fu martial arts film or even a Hong Kong action film of John Woo’s glory days. But if you suspect disbelief just a little, these are very good action movies.
In essence, these movies are Westerns, just transplanted to New York and Rome. John Wick is the retired gunslinger who is brought back from retirement, first by a need for revenge and then by threats and compulsions. He is the reluctant warrior with an enviable reputation that also causes him problems. There is also a ‘code’ of honor among these assassins and the organization they are affiliated with. This is part of the suspension of disbelief again but if you buy into it, it is just as satisfying as any samurai flick.
The two movies take place within days (or maybe hours) of each other, so I think we can talk about both plots at once. I’m going off memory so this may not be as well-researched as it could be.
John Wick was a top shelf assassin for hire until he met, fell in love and married a woman from outside that world. He left, with great difficulty, the world of murder-for-hire behind. However, when John Wick 1 starts, his wife has just died. We start off seeing John grieving, going through his vast, empty house alone. Then a message from beyond the grave appears: his wife bought him a puppy and attached a note. Asking John to let himself keep loving, through the puppy, named Daisy.
One relic from his old life is a 1969 Mustang in pristine condition. A punk Russian mobster sees the car and tries to pressure John into selling it. John refuses, the punk breaks into Wick’s house, steals the car and murders the puppy out of spite but leaves John Wick alive, not knowing who he is. When Wick awakens, he buries the pup, goes looking for his car and returns to his old assassin life seeking revenge. The rest of the plot of John Wick 1 is him finding and killing the Russian punk, who happens to be the son of a well-connected Russian mobster known to John in his old days*.
John Wick 1 introduces us to John, his reputation and offers a little glimpse into the alternate world they inhabit. Including old friends like Wilem Dafoe’s Marcus and old rivals like Adrianne Palicki’s Perkins. It also shows us the Continental, a luxury hotel run by Ian McShane’s Winston that offers a safe haven against violence and coordinates the distribution of contacts. No killing is permitted in the Continental. This assassin world uses gold coins both as currency and as a way of showing that you ‘belong’ to that world. These coins are shown to be precious and we see that John Wick has quite a store of them saved up.
John Wick 2 starts off right after John Wick gains his revenge and his old associates come calling to call in a ‘marker’ to force him to kill again. John tries to refuse but after his home is destroyed and all other attempts at reason and negotiation fail, John agrees to kill a former friend and ally. After doing so, he is stabbed in the back and a large contract is put on his head. John manages to elude a vast number of assassins, with some assistance from sympathetic or otherwise criminals who allow him to kill the man who forced him out of retirement. However, John kills him inside the Continental Hotel, which results in John losing all immunity and access to the special resources the assassins enjoy. The second movie ends with what seems like a vast number of killers world-wide looking for him, seeking to collect the multi-million dollar bounty on his head.
The movie has some of the best gun fighting in it since Way of the Gun or 13 Hours. The choreography is very well done and Keanu Reeves seems to have done most of his own stunts. He certainly has done his prep work and comes off as an older, lethal gunman. Sort of like a sadder-but-wiser Neo without all the magic powers.
I also want to call out Keanu’s acting. In 2000’s The Gift, I saw Keanu actually Act for the first time. And he really impressed me here. He really can act. What he can’t do is dialog. Luckily for him, I doubt John Wick says 100 words total in each movie. It is a very terse performance and he emotes very well in it.
The writing worked well for me, too. The first script comes off as a bit rote but it builds this alternate world well, it has some great understated dialog and it has people who have what feel like real lives. Sure, many of the gunmen literally have red shirts (in the Red Circle scene of the first movie) but the speaking role characters all have relationships that don’t revolve around John Wick. I like the way people reacted to John Wick, both in the humorous way of ‘are you working again, John?’ as well as more human ways of people being glad to see him, having missed him. You can see that John had a life here, had friends and even lovers. Stuff like that makes a fictional world feel real and its important the more ‘out there’ your fictional world is.
The movies worked emotionally as well. The death and aftermath of the puppy’s death still affect me, the way the blood trails shows how it dragged its broken body along to lie beside the unconscious John. Jeez…
Or seeing how his wife, Helen’s, death affected him and his longing for the life he had with her. You see what he cares about and see people caring about him and that makes us, as an audience, care about John Wick too.
The second movie also did a great job of constantly raising the stakes on John. The numbers of people after him keeps going up, his obstances get higher and higher, the stakes if he fails and in the end, if he succeeds, keep rising. Things keep getting worse, even as he surmounts each obstacle. The script is a great example of how to write a ‘it gets worse’ story without turning the character into a sad sack punching bag. The second movie also expands the world, taking us international and showing us the vast criminal network of this world. Derke Kolstad, the screenwriter, seems to have been a fan of the 100 Bullet’s graphic novel. As the ‘High Table’ of crime families feels a great deal like the ruling families of the Trust in the graphic novel. Even the assassins start to feel a bit like uncommitted Minutemen of that graphic novel.
We also see things being taken from John, irrevocably. His wife, his dog, his phone with the video from his wife, his house, his security with The Continental. John keeps losing everything he wanted to hang onto, leaving nothing but his lethal skills for him to cling too. A skilled screenwriter will find some way to give him something new to cling to after putting him through hell in John Wick 3.
Gun porn. I love it.
What didn’t work?
There’s some repetition of dialog in the second movie that felt odd after watching both films back to back. Word for word descriptions of John Wick seem to have been copy/pasted from John Wick 1. That’s just lazy.
For a fairly realistic movie with people who want John Wick dead, he survives being captured too many times. The ending fist fight between John and the Russian mob boss was odd and almost embarrassing, given the fitness and age differences between the two actors.
The framing scene that opens (and almost ends) the first movie: John bleeding, stumbling, watching the video of his wife, that felt awkward and staged. It worked ok the first time but doesn’t hold up on rewatch.
Wilem Dafoe’s assassin character was a little too easy to surprise and kill off. It felt like he was written out, not resolved.
The opening car scene from John Wick 2 was exciting but it didn’t matter to the plot of the movie and could/should have been cut.
Some of the CQB fights are too repetitive. It was all arm-lock into headshot, over and over. Or it felt that way. The first movie had more versatility in the fights.
There didn’t seem to be a strong enough motivation for John to violate the rules of the Continental hotel just to kill the guy who hired him. Yeah, he stabbed him in the back and put a price on his head but that shouldn’t be a new scenario.
Too many assassins. On the one hand, ratcheting up the stakes by sending almost everyone after John is good screenwriting. But it started to get silly. And you don’t want silly in a John Wick movie. When you have homeless hit men and random subway busker hitmen, you’re starting to approach the Warriors-level of silly street gangs. Less is more. A handful of Replacement Killers (men of John’s caliber) is more memorable and cool than hitman bus drivers and hitman waitresses or whatever else the next level of goofiness is. Show respect for the craft, man. Show respect for your world.
Two damn fine action movies. I think I prefer the second movie a bit more for the action and I like the first one a bit more for the acting/emotions. If you don’t mind violence for violence’s sake in your movies, you’ll have a good time.
*The Mob boss seems to be a former employer of John Wick or in some way he was able to command Wick’s services before letting him retire. It isn’t clear if he was one of the High Table families but if not, they certainly have power and influence in New York.