In my review of John Wick: Chapter 2, I talked about how it was largely a successful sequel by building off the groundwork of the first movie. However, I also pointed out that the movie is at odds with its protagonist. John Wick is a character who doesn’t want to kill anymore, but the film and the audience love seeing him kill. What’s troubling about Chapter 2 is where it leaves the character, the franchise, and how it sets its priorities for the next chapter.
[Spoilers ahead for John Wick: Chapter 2]
In case you need a brief refresher, here’s how John Wick: Chapter 2 ends: John Wick, having broken the rules of The Continental by killing Santino D’Antonio on the grounds of the hotel, goes to meet his fate in the park. He assumes that he’s going to be killed for breaking the rules, but instead, Winston informs Wick that he’s getting a one-hour head start. However, he will no longer have the protections or benefits provided to the secret society of assassins. Wick runs, surrounded by people checking their phones to learn of the massive bounty on his life.
The setup for the third movie becomes clear: Wick may be an expert killer, but the third film will remove all of the benefits he received in the first two movies, so he’ll be at a disadvantage. He’s going to be out in the open using only his wits and his skills to survive. And if you’re looking for more action mayhem, that’s not a bad way to end a movie.
Unfortunately, that’s not the best priority for a sequel to have. John Wick: Chapter 2 essentially makes a choice it doesn’t have to make. Rather than develop the character of John Wick and give him a compelling arc that will carry him into future films, Chapter 2 comes down on the side of the audience’s bloodlust. It assumes you’re there for the countless headshots, and that you’ll return for future installments to see more nameless henchman get bullets to the sternum and skull.
But that’s not the strongest way to continue a franchise if you want people to care about characters. Ultimately, set pieces come and go. They’re fun in the moment, and you may think about them from time to time, but characters last longer, and John Wick: Chapter 2 feints at creating an interesting arc for the protagonist. While the first movie was a lean action-thriller that could coast on John Wick having a direct goal motivated by a clear inciting incident (the death of a puppy left to him by his late wife), Chapter 2 wants to make the world bigger. Unfortunately, it doesn’t know exactly how to do that with Wick.
It starts at an interesting place: John Wick does not want to be a killer anymore. He wants to live out his days in peace, and D’Antonio won’t let him. However, in the scheme of the film, there are only two scenes where Wick’s desire for peace emerges. The first scene where he refuses D’Antonio and refuses his blood marker, and the scene where he gets his weapons back and screams in anger at having to suit up again.
And that’s about it. From there, John Wick is a killing machine, and for people who like the John Wick movies to see a killing machine at work, the film is a success. But that makes Wick a less interesting character, and the film misses opportunity after opportunity to check in with what makes John Wick tick. Instead of exploring why he wants to leave his assassin’s life behind, he simply keeps coming across characters who suggest that deep down he doesn’t really want to quit being a killer, which is far less interesting.