John Wick 2: Humanity, Off-Camera on a Smoking Break

The climactic gunfight of John Wick: Chapter Two takes place in a labyrinth of mirrors, an art exhibition in New York. Having been dragged (away from playing fetch with his dog and seeing perfunctory flashbacks of his dead wife) back into a comical underworld of assassins—again—Wick, in a turn of events that will surprise no one, now hunts down the man who brought him back. We see Keanu Reeves as Wick enter, our view of him steady and focused as mirrored doors close behind him, bathed in cold blue light. Opposing mirrors make Wick appear to stretch into infinite (and infinitely diminishing) copies in the background, receding into itself and into insularity. Reeves’ reflections are an infinite number of points in a nerve-rackingly enclosed space. Is this a comment by Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad, the director and writer of John Wick: Chapter Two, respectively, on the necessarily diminishing returns of a sequel to such a complete first film? That the appeal of the film was its sparseness, its efficiency as an action film with no delusions of greater meaning, and that the (now seemingly unavoidable) franchise mars that? Or is it merely meant to look “interesting?” As Wick leaves the enclosed entrance, the fight unfolds in an open, yet more disorienting foyer. The camera is as smooth as the Wick films have been known for, following him, the center of the film’s gravity as he dispatches his foes with ease. The mirrors make the action hard to follow, though the first time the series has faltered in this respect. Yet the lapse feels intentional, a cheeky response to the original film’s clarity of action. Here, the camera is steady as the film’s tone is (cursorily) solemn, but the mess unfolding in front of it certainly is not—what better metaphor for this uneven, inhuman, if admirably reflexive sequel?

Believe it or not, this is one of the more easily digested shots in this scene.

Believe it or not, this is one of the more easily digested shots in this scene.

Such an awareness is evident from the first scene of John Wick 2, when the first character onscreen is, not Wick, but a projection of Buster Keaton on the side of a building, directly referencing the slapstick tradition—a potentially fruitful connection. Despite inviting the comparison, however, Wick 2 is not treated well by it. Keaton’s silent comedies follow a very simple rule—what is invisible to the camera (and therefore the audience) must be invisible to the characters, regardless of the logic of the space. With this rule, Keaton often has objects pop up unexpectedly from behind others; he portrays the camera as an authority, but a misleading one, an unreliable narrator, from whose perspective countless surprises can lay hidden. Also counteracting the inherent artifice of the camera are Keaton’s own stunts, usually performed in one take: the gags appear real and human because they are. Buster Keaton was self-aware of the medium, but used this knowledge to make his films more human. In John Wick 2, however, we see Keaton’s shadow self, in which the camera is given full, unquestioned authority, and the actors on screen appear as mere playthings. (Countless people die, but at least they do so in pretty fashion.) Given this power, the camera is no longer a playmate, but a despot, and a shockingly petty one at that—for in this mode, if something is onscreen, it might as well not exist. (An appropriately narrow existence for a narrow film.) Where Keaton’s characters saw only what we see, allowing us to empathize, John Wick is made to know more, see more than we possibly can with the camera angles presented to us[1]—which can only lead to mere worship. There is awareness, but no attempt to create humanity from it.

This dearth of humanity pervades and harms the entire film—a dilemma, considering that that lack of humanity is crucial to the film’s identity as a no-frills action film. In James Bond films, there is always a new absurdly attractive, passingly characterized woman for Bond to seduce. This is a shallow, puerile male fantasy aspect of the films, but it appears downright feminist in comparison to the presence of the feminine in John Wick 2—more precisely, the lack of any of its presence whatsoever. (Not a new fight for female representation in films—any representation at all) The film does concede the existence of women—Wick’s first target is a pleasant Italian lady who wears furs, after all—but the camera would far rather spend more time drooling over high-caliber weaponry. Wick has a (dead) wife, and there are a variety of female assassins, but for all intents and purposes, John Wick 2 presents a post-domestic, post-social, post-human world, full of assassins, of which Wick is just one more—only more competent.

He may have a fondness for black suits and headshots, a dark past, and an ever-blank face (or is it Reeves’ poker face as he tries not to laugh?), but make no mistake—Wick’s sole defining characteristic is hyper-competence. He can kill anyone, survive anything. There is no obstacle he cannot overcome as a killer. Therefore, he does not have to be clever, like a John McClane, because such ingenuity and problem-solving implies vulnerability (there goes that pesky humanity again). Like a video game character, Wick is defined by his abilities; like a video game, the film is only a series of obstacles rigged for Wick’s—the player’s—success (a standard power fantasy game, no matter how difficult, is meant to be beaten). Ironic, then, that before the film had started in the theater, an ad played for a new video game; the excited young men behind me mistook it for a movie. Something tells me they made the same mistake for the film proper.

John Wick 2 is not a movie. It is a movie-movie. It is hyper-aware of the lineage it comes from, hyper-competent in its execution, but its lessons are learnt, not from reality, but from other, earlier movies—hyper-reality. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard posits that postmodern society relies so heavily on models of reality that it has lost contact with reality itself—film (especially Wick 2) has a similar estranged relationship with the real world. The Wick films are distillations of the action film that plunder the cornerstones and clichés of the genre, both as a parody and a badge of pride. They go so far, however, that Baudrillard’s claim rings eerily true: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” In John Wick 2, there is no reality, only signs of reality—no humanity, only lip service to humanity. Perhaps this is why we feel so empty by the film’s conclusion.

At the end of the film, John Wick stands in Central Park on a beautiful, sunny day—the kind of day anyone else would enjoy, but at which he stands resolutely blank. Suddenly, the entire crowd turns to him and stands still, revealing themselves to be assassins. It is a chilling moment, but for an unintended reason. A normal, social, human world, implied at the beginning of the story but slowly worn down, now no longer exists in the film’s fiction. People are not people, but assassins. Central Park is not a landmark, but a potential battleground. Any sort of genuine motivation or emotion for Wick at the beginning of the first film is long gone, boiled down to “leave me alone or I’ll kill you.” After John Wick 3, in which Wick will undoubtedly kill the entire world, perhaps the inevitable John Wick 4 could go to space, where aliens could teach John how to be human?


[1] At one point in the hall of mirrors, Wick makes a shot that appears impossible to us, a trick of the eye enabled by odd reflections. We have no sense of the space ourselves, but trust, nay, know that Wick will succeed anyway. We are not meant to understand this particular action, only marvel at it.