John Wick: Chapter 2 is 90% graphic violence for its own sake – albeit brilliantly executed. The punters are lapping it up. But why?
Violence as spectacle has probably never been done better on screen than in John Wick Chapter 2. The cinematography and music is superb and the choreography in the many fight scenes stunning, with a super-athletic and apparently ageless Keanu Reeves seemingly – but probably not – doing a lot of his own stunt work as gun-totin’ killing machine John Wick. And yeah, there’s a bit of humour jammed in between the graphically realistic slaughter. But this flick is oh so empty.
The plot is barely there: JW is blackmailed out of ‘retirement’ by a crime boss and kills a shitload of bad-arse gangsters before they kill him. That’s it. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much).
Characterisation is minimal. There’s no reason to like Mr Wick (his dog-with-no-name and moping over a photograph of the woman he loved and lost don’t add up to much). There’s no reason to hate his enemies (they’re all vicious killers, just like Wick, and we don’t get to know much about any of them). So how are we supposed to care who cops it and who doesn’t? Especially when, from the outset, it’s clear Wick is going to survive anything. Characters you don’t care about + an indestructible hero/anti-hero/whatever = zero tension.
Which leaves us with what?
Graphic violence for its own sake! Brilliantly depicted, sure, but what a waste of cinematic talent when the violence is the only point. And this is violence with gravitas. It’s not spoof. It’s not ironic. Its depiction is an uncompromisingly serious creative endeavour in the interests of making the killing and maiming look as realistic as possible.
I should add at this point that I don’t have a problem with graphic screen violence per se. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a nasty villain cop a grisly end? And in the gangster world of John Wick, of course guns and violent reckonings come with the territory. Shit, I don’t even mind a bit of gratuitous violence if the tone’s right. But when all dramatic fundamentals are stripped away and gratuitous violence is all you get for 90% of a film’s running time, as in John Wick 2 – well, count me out. I just don’t see the appeal. Even if that violence is managed with creative genius, when that’s all there is it ain’t enough. Nowhere near it. I think we should be demanding much, much more from our escapist cinema.
For me, there is only one element of interest to John Wick Chapter 2. That is, why is there a market for this shite? There certainly is – it was $40 million into profit 2 days after release.
I get that a lot of punters just want to be entertained. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not taking an elitist position here. I simply don’t understand how it’s entertaining watching an indestructible Wick blast countless bad-arses away for almost the entire flick. He pops them in the face, through the top of the skull, in the guts (the gun buried in the belly and held a few moments before discharging it – faintly pornographic, you’d have to say). He lodges a knife in an aorta which if removed will result in certain death – nice touch there, John. He out-punches ‘em, out-chops ‘em, out-kicks ‘em, out-guns ’em blah blah blah blam blam blam… and that’s all there is, folks.
There’s a certain fascination in the bloody realism, I get that. When guys get shot, it looks like they really get shot. When they are struck by a car, they look very struck. But this realism is entirely undermined by the ludicrously unrealistic resilience of John Wick. He slams a car into one of his adversaries and they end up limp on the road, with limbs at odd angles. He gets slammed by a car, lies stunned a moment or two, then hauls himself up a bit sore before re-entering the fray, instantly self-healing. He’s a hitman, not Wolverine – so WTF?
I wonder what the popularity of John Wick and the like says about us. Why do so many moviegoers get off on graphic depictions of shootings and lethal violence over and over for almost an entire movie? Centuries ago, would these same people have been lining up for lions vs Christian tickets at the Colosseum? Thrilled to public executions in the village square? Got their jollies from stonings, if not joined in? Are these the types who run to join the onlookers at car prangs in the hope of catching an eyeful of gore (or better still, getting a selfie or some grisly video to share on YouTube)? If not, why not?
I wonder why there is any critical acclaim for cinema like this that pays no mind to dramatic fundamentals like plot and character, instead directing all creative energy into a bloody festival of skull-popping and multi-mode savagery. I mean, really, isn’t it past time for someone to stand up and call out that the emperor has no clothes? Have our standards sunk so low? Or were they always so?
I issue a challenge to anyone who enjoys this stuff to explain why. I’m genuinely mystified. And don’t come back with claims that you “get it” and I don’t. What IS “it”? That’s what I want to know.
If you simply enjoy gawking at brilliantly executed violence and slaughter for 100 minutes out of 122, just admit it. But then dig a little deeper and see if you can elaborate on the appeal of this stuff, and what might be behind it. And do share. It’s got me beat.
Australian release date: John Wick: Chapter 2 in cinemas from 18 May.
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