A pair of contrasting sequels highlights the challenges of returning to the familiar
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Riccardo Scamarcio as Santino D’Antonio (left) and Ruby Rose as Ares in ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’
The current industry preoccupation with sequels, remakes, and reboots, from a narrative standpoint, is all about returning to the scene of the crime, if you will. We appreciate the review, walking in the already delineated footsteps of the initial outing and carefully surveying the landscape, seeking differences, clues that we missed. Possibly for the more discerning viewers, there’s the thrill of discovering how a copycat (a director stepping in for an original helmer who has moved on to greener and more high-profile assignments) has left his own imprint on the proceedings.
Take, for instance, the case of director James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Confidence”) who slipped into the big chair for the second installment of the bestselling E.L. James “Fifty Shades” series, vacated by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Johnson did the heavy lifting, establishing the narrative blueprint of the relationship between Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the handsome billionaire with an affinity for kink, and innocent young lit-grad Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). We get the rules, the safe words, and the budding love affair that we’re told is doomed from the start, although we know that’s not even remotely true.
Part two, supposedly, gets “Darker,” but Foley is saddled with tension and drama-free exchanges that also happen to be utterly lacking in any sense of kink or titillation. Anastasia walked away from Grey at the end of the first movie and meanders right back on cue in what could have been wrapped up before the requisite pop hit on the soundtrack concludes. Nothing’s going to keep these two apart, especially their complete disinterest in one another. Viewers are more likely to have fonder feelings for the sterile décor than Johnson seems to show for Dornan’s abs.
Thank goodness for the timely arrival of “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Former stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski—going solo this time after sharing helming duties with David Leitch—and writer Derek Kolstad revisit the character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a legendary assassin in a hyper-stylized world of killers with its own codes of conduct, who initially came out of retirement seeking vengeance for his dog, but now finds himself forced to repay a debt with larger repercussions.
Rather than merely retreading the well-worn and bloody path of the first film, “Chapter 2” opens with a mythos, showcasing an international realm of intrigue. We’re granted access to a global enterprise where the brutally efficient league of assassins operates alongside an unsuspecting populace with full arsenals at their disposal, but in whispered tones we hear rumors that Wick is definitely a cut above the rest of the pack. He doesn’t need the rapid-fire weaponry or the carefully tailored suits that can withstand point-blank kill shots. He can dispatch multiple targets with little more than a pencil.
When the tables are turned, forcing him to defend himself after a huge bounty has been put out on his him, Wick displays the chops (and shots and hops) ascribed to his mythic status, but along the way he truly transcends the narrative confines. Watching the action sequences in full-medium shot framing is to appreciate the choreography and athletic prowess of Reeves and the stunt team. This is akin to the chopped and screwed production style that has emerged recently in hip-hop, where instead of pulling snippets and samples, songs are slowed down and minimal beats inserted to more fully immerse the listener in the moment.
On film, this means we have time to ponder Wick’s role in the pantheon of action-oriented anti-heroes like Jason Statham’s “Transporter,” Matt Damon’s “Jason Bourne,” and Liam Neeson’s avenging father-husband in the “Taken” franchise. For Reeves and these films, acting and performance is not limited to dialogue and emotional expressiveness, but incorporates the existential grace of reactive movement. To my mind, Wick embodies the best of all their physical traits, and even dares to one-up the world-building aesthetic of Vin Diesel’s “Riddick.”
We’re supposed to embrace the shift from horror boogeyman to warrior king that Diesel’s intergalactic stud undergoes, but “John Wick” in its first two installments fashions an ever-expanding domain with a surprising degree of moral heft. Wick’s choice to break one of the cardinal rules of his order at the end of “Chapter 2” not only sets up a third film in the saga, it also stands in stark contrast to the notion that sequels can’t blaze their own trails.