John Wick: Chapter 2 – The High Table Roundtable

John Wick: Chapter 2 lit up the box office this Valentine’s Day weekend, much to the delight of Chuck Winters, Max Robinson, Andrew Niemann, and David Uzumeri. The boys take their seats at The High Table to break down the second installment in this unlikely but not unwelcome franchise.

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Chuck: Okay, so…that was fucking awesome, I thought. It has a more ambitious feel befitting of a sequel, and while I didn’t think all of it quite worked, in general, I thought it didn’t lose the things that made the first movie so much fun. What about you guys?

Max: J2hn W2ck could’ve easily been a classic diminishing returns sequel ala Halloween II, where the charm of the original is stripped away in exchange for more action and death. We get more action and way more instances of people getting shot in the head point blank, but John Wick: Chapter 2 felt legitimately like a natural evolution of this world and these characters. Even going in with high hopes, I loved it.

Andy: John Wick: Chapter 2 was an absolute blast! I love how the movie works like a reboot of the first film but with even higher stakes, all the while expanding the mythology of the established universe. It is very much the antithesis to sub-par action sequels like Taken 2.

Uzi: This is an astonishingly gorgeous movie. The original looked great, but cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak) comes on with this installment to blow the fucking visual doors off—where the first Wick had a kinetic energy and economy of action that was original, and some pretty great set design, it still occupied a fairly mundane world, while Wick 2 looks like it takes place in the realm of mythology. There’s an otherworldly weight to everything in this movie, and it feels like a part that should have been there all along.

Chuck: So Chapter 2 picks up shortly after John Wick gets his new dog at the end of the first movie. He gets his car back (kinda) from a chop shop run by Iosef Tarasov’s uncle (Peter Stormare), and he starts settling in for a boring rest of his life when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes calling to cash in a “marker”—a blood oath he swore to Santino in exchange for help with the the “impossible task” he did for the Tarasovs before the events of the first movie. The job is to assassinate his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so Santino can take her place at “The High Table.”

CLEARLY, screenwriter Derek Kolstad is piling on the lore of John Wick’s world here, blurring the line between “crazy gun-fu action flick” and “urban fantasy.” Any thoughts on that? Good thing? Bad thing? Anything introduced that you find particularly awesome?

Max: The first John Wick is excellent, but John Wick The Second really soars because Kolstad and Stahelski aren’t saddled with establishing a whole world and they can just dive right in. The Continental has an awesome sense of “place” as a movie location, and when John breaks An Important House Rule at the conclusion of the film, the nearly two movies of setup make his decision a huge dramatic moment.

Chuck: Oh man, we’re probably gonna get to that a bit later, but that ending was goddamned amazing too.

Andy: So, rumor has it that Kolstad has a John Wick bible which contains all the lore of the universe in which these movies take place. I certainly can believe that, since it seems like we’ve only scratched the surface of this weird comic booky universe of covert assassins and spies. This movie is kinda what movies like Wanted or Kingsman aspire to but ultimately fall short of. But yeah, this movie leaning harder into the Greek/Roman mythology that was hinted at in the first film was exactly what I wanted. John Wick is essentially still a mythic figure of death that even the gods of the criminal underworld fear.

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Uzi: This entire universe is like some dude grew up in a house that only had Parker novels and Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks. The first movie did some really good subtle worldbuilding, but it was the kind of stuff you didn’t really think had a real background; this sequel shows how wrong you are. What’s super impressive is that Kolstad’s a first time writer, and if there’s anything first-time writers who love worldbuilding love to do, it’s over-explain shit.

Chuck: I never thought about it from that angle before but yeah, Kolstad’s got some steel confidence to just play a lot of that background shit cool.

Uzi: There’s no expository monologues here; any information given in dialogue is done as succinctly as possible, and the rules of the world are always more likely to be implied rather than explained. It’s a surprising amount of restraint considering how relatively new to the game Kolstad is.

Max: I was really impressed by the storytelling instincts on display here.

Chuck: Anyway, John’s got no choice but to accept the job, but that’s only after Santino burns his house down for refusing and Winston (Ian McShane) makes it clear that there is no other way out of it. After he kills Gianna, Santino betrays him to keep up appearances, and the rest of the movie is Wick trying to get to Santino while smoking every jamoke that wants the $7 million bounty Santino placed on his head.

To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about Santino. As a character he’s kind of bland compared to Michael Nyqvist’s Tarasov, who had this fascinating “I know I’m completely fucked but I’m going to see this through anyway” vibe going. Santino, on the other hand, just feels like a little bitch who somehow managed to make himself A Big Deal, and on one hand it kinda works because it explains why Wick makes the decision he does at the end, but on the other hand…I dunno. Is it just me?

Max: Nyqvist was basically pitch perfect for John Wick and it helped that he had great evil lackeys in the form of Alfie Allen as Tarasov’s psychopath brat son and Dean “Dennis Duffy” Winters as a mob consigliere who is just done with all this shit. Santino doesn’t have the kind of raw pathos of the “always just about to crack” Tarasov, but I do like that he’s the perfect counterpoint to John Wick: A man who abuses the secret assassin society’s hallowed code of honor to take whatever he wants and crush anyone who becomes inconvenient.

Riccardo Scamarcio plays Santino D’Antonio in 'John Wick: Chapter 2.'

Chuck: You know, now that I think about it, I knew I wanted that motherfucker to die a horrible death when he revealed that he called in The Marker because “I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like if I was in my sister’s seat.” He might be an even bigger child than Iosef Tarasov was, and the worst part is, John HAS to work for him.

Uzi: I feel like Santino kinda sucked but that was okay because the real villain of John Wick 2, cliched as it sounds, is John Wick—I mean, this is a movie where the final fight takes place in a hall of mirrors called “Reflections of the Self.” It’s not subtle, and basically everything Santino yells at Wick about being addicted to the vengeance rings pretty true, and it’s a surprisingly self-aware take for the series to have this early in.

Andy: The Uzi edit of this film has John Wick getting domed at the end. Kidding aside, I totally agree with Wick being kind of the ultimate villain. In the end, he breaks the rules and essentially becomes the hunted. Throughout the movie, we are told that Wick can’t escape his past and needs to pay for all of the people that he violently murdered with headshots and exploded kneecaps. As for Santino, I think I liked him better than Alfie Allen’s punk kid character, but I think I really enjoyed his sister Gianna the most despite the small amount of time we see her on screen. Also, shoutout to Common for playing a great foil to Wick’s character.

Chuck: Common was fucking great and I’m glad they seem to have left the door open for his return. That’s one professional courtesy that’s going to pay off in the future. I also want to give it up for Ruby Rose as Ares; last month she nearly walked away with xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and God DAMN could that woman go here.

Max: Common as Cassian was fun because “the disgraceful murder of your enigmatic lady crime boss” is treated with the gravitas of bad fender bender. I dug that Ruby Rose’s entire deal in this movie was that she’s very creepy and good at showing up out of nowhere but basically can’t hold her own against John Wick in a one on one fight.

Chuck: Really? I thought she did fine in their final fight. It was short, but she was ferocious.

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Max: I mean she’s great but she’s all tricks and gimmicks, she’s the perfect henchwoman for Santino.

Uzi: Ruby Rose was ridiculous and that’s all I’m adding on this front

Andy: I didn’t understand if Ares was deaf or just mute. I know those things aren’t always mutually exclusive but it is always cool to see that kind of representation. By the way, there’s another Greek reference for you, and one that’s incredibly fitting.

Chuck: So if Chapter 1 was about Wick grieving his wife, what do you think Chapter 2 is about? Uzi mentioned earlier that he thought the real villain of Chapter 2 was Wick himself…

Andy: I think Chapter 2 is about Wick’s acceptance that he’s going to die eventually. If the first one was about his determination to live, then this one is about his determination to die and be reunited with his wife. However, he still has this code of honor which prevents him from not completing the job until it’s finished. Also, I think Wick might actually be afraid of death even if he is extremely hard to kill.

Uzi: The whole movie is one long “descent into the underworld” bit, and I think that its willingness to go deeper into the rabbit hole is what really made this worthwhile as a sequel. It’s “more John Wick,” sure, but it’s not an amped-up remake of the original movie: it’s a new, equally imaginative story set in the John Wick universe, which relies somewhat on our past familiarity and its new license to really expand what goes on in Wick’s world. It saw how people enjoyed the first movie and knew they wanted more of the gold-coin shit, and it delivered.

Max: Chapter 2 was really cool story-wise because the first movie was all about how John killing people and avenging his dog was a vessel for his grief and this movie is all about the consequences of that. John’s getting madder and madder and it reaches a point where the secret society he’s stepped back into can’t tolerate the threat he presents to that order.

Andy: Speaking of the new dog, they really played with audience expectations on its health and well-being, but thankfully didn’t walk that same path. I like that the new dog essentially represented Wick’s soul.

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Uzi: It played with it, when the house exploded, but only for a second. After that, the message was clear: not only is the dog safe, but this movie isn’t interested in being just a heightened version of the original. It wants to tell a new story, but with a continuity of narrative and vision.

Max: I was glad that John Wick: Chapter 2 didn’t try to just be the first movie. We wrapped up the plot beat about the stolen car, we’re moving on to the next thing. The events of this film naturally spin out of the first, but we’re not retreading old ground.

Chuck: Well, onto the fun stuff: What did you guys think of the action compared to the first John Wick?

Andy: Oh man. There were several moments where I winced a lot, which is a very good thing for someone who has seen a lot of action and horror films. The NYC assassin montage might be one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in awhile. I also really liked the entire Roman catacombs sequence, especially for its use of sound editing and long shots which amped up the space and tension.

Max: Shout out to the sumo wrestler assassin that John Wick had to shoot in the head twice. This movie was brutal. 

Chuck: I want to say that the Mirrors of the Soul sequence didn’t feel as cleanly shot to me as the other action scenes in either John Wick movies, but I have a hard time begrudging it because a.) They shot it in a fucking HALL OF MIRRORS and that’s goddamn ridiculous, like I refuse to begrudge the effort, and full disclosure, b.) I saw this movie a couple of Long Island Iced Teas deep, just drunk enough to heighten the experience (in theory) without losing the thread. So that may not be the movie’s problem.

Max: The mirror sequence was extremely dope and a nice compliment to the turkish bath house sequence from the first movie. The bath house set piece was significantly shorter and a little more to the point, though. Action-wise, John Wick 2 really got me with the Keanu/Common fight where they end up rolling down a flight of marble steps.

Uzi: Oh man, I adored the steps bit. It’s not even an action beat, it’s this weird interjection of extended physical comedy where two dudes just won’t stop falling down a flight of stairs. It goes on just too-long enough, before Keanu and Common just start beating the shit out of each other again. And still, it’s a marble staircase—Wick 2 has all these beats that are like Jerry Lewis bits shot by Refn.

Chuck: Any little performances worth singling out? Obviously we have to talk about Laurence Fishburne and the crazy Duke of New York kick he was on as Bowery King, but the first movie was filled with awesome little performances and I feel like this was no different.

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Max: Fishburne as The Bowery King is a genius concept because OF COURSE THERE’S A FACTION OF ASSASSINS THAT PRETEND TO BE HOMELESS PEOPLE.

Chuck: How goddamn awesome was it when Wick hid from those two assassins with that homeless dude, and then it looked like they were just going to pass him by, but the homeless dude popped them anyway in the MOST AMAZING WAY POSSIBLE?

Max: Fishburne’s great at playing insane old men, and that he basically plays The Devil that Wick has to appeal to is The Good Shit.

Uzi: Fishburne taking off his Yeezy Season attire and putting on a silk bathrobe was one of the best sight gags in the movie. He’s like a crime lord from Fallout.

Andy: The Fishburne bit works as like a meta Matrix joke too if you think about it. I kinda wish we got more of Fishburne as he was marketed quite heavily in the trailers, but he’s certainly open to appear in future movies. They need to get Hugo Weaving in these films like yesterday.

Uzi: I hadn’t considered Weaving as a potential future cast member but I’d love that, and it’d certainly feel natural considering the existing cast. I think Peter Serafinowicz did a really great job as a sardonic elitist prick (I know, big surprise) but this is a movie filled with supporting roles occupied by leading actors relishing doing a character bit. Reddick as Charon is a joy.

Max: John Wick movies are just entire scenes of character actors going “AH….MISTER WICK” and I can’t get enough of it. Ian McShane got a lot of great scenery to chew on in those scenes too.

Uzi: It’s like a Batman movie where everybody else is Alfred.

Max: Oh my god, yes.

Chuck: Brilliant, Uzi.

Uzi: Even the people he kills show him respect and deference as he watches the light go out of their eyes. It’s fantastic.

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Chuck: I also really dug Thomas Sadoski’s brief return as Jimmy the World’s Smartest Beat Cop. There’s that great echo of the “You workin’ again?” scene from the first movie, and then when Wick storms off, he just lets out this perfect “Ahhhhh, shit”.

Andy: I said this earlier but Claudia Gerini’s turn as an Italian crime boss was fascinating to me, and I really dug her choosing to end her own life instead of letting Wick take care of it. Like, she knows she’s going to die the instant she sees Wick in the mirror, which of course is also foreshadowing for later.

Uzi: That shot of her bleeding out into the gigantic bath was disturbing as shit and also utterly gorgeous. My Lord.

Max: I liked how weirdly nice that scene was. John holding her hand as she died is the closest thing to mercy in the John Wick universe.

Chuck: What about other little details? Breaking out the FUCKIN’ PEN-SEEL in that NYC assassin montage, for instance, could’ve felt like cheap fanservice but somehow it just feels awesome to get a better sense of how John Wick made use of that.

Andy: Especially since they establish that early on with Peter Stormare relating the story of how Wick killed a man with a pencil.

Chuck: Peter Stormare, someone else I was REALLY, REALLY HAPPY to see.

Max: Stormare was the greatest fake-out because you kind of assume in the opener he’ll be the big bad of the film since he’s the brother of the bad guy from the original, but he decides to just let John walk away with his car because he doesn’t want to die. Stormare is playing a guy just trying to survive in the extremely specific rules of the universe of John Wick.

Chuck: Does anything about the movie come up short in comparison to the first film?

Uzi: Fuck nah, this shit ruled.

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Chuck: Yeah, I’ll be honest, part of me kinda missed the simplicity of Chapter 1, but that just feels like whining based on what we get in the tradeoff. Everything else was a HUGE step up.

Max: Basically every middle sequel now is The Empire Strikes Back, but Chapter 2 actually deserved its harried, bleak ending because it gives us a big new status quo. John killed Santino in The Continental. Not only does that end John’s friendship with Winston, it means he can’t rely on the assassin society infrastructure he needs to stay alive. He’s trapped out in the cold until he dies. The stakes could not be higher.

Uzi: This is gonna sound like a weird comparison, but Santino getting perforated felt, to me, a lot like the desk-smash in Moonlight: You absolutely know it’s a terrible idea for the character you’re watching to do this, but you cheer your ass off when it happens anyway, because fuck that asshole.

Chuck: My only complaint about that is that Wick didn’t make an exception and shoot him in the throat or something, so he could know just how badly he fucked up before he died. But that instant “Eh fuck you” death worked too.

Andy: I think it’s a huge improvement on an already solid film. My only gripe is that it really has no resolution but, like Max said, the movie earns it.

Chuck: All right, final thoughts?

Max: I’m going to go ahead and say John Wick’s back. This could’ve easily been a disappointing or merely decent movie and I was really glad that we got a sequel that’s in many ways superior to the original.

Andy: I’m already in line for Chapter 3.

Uzi: I could see myself seeing these for as long as Kolstad, Stahelski and Reeves want to make them. There’s a lightning-in-a-bottle creative synergy going on here, and as long as it keeps being creatively and commercially successful, I’d love to see these movies continue to be made.

Chuck: Seriously, though: A FUCKIN’ PENCIL. Who does that?

John Wick: Chapter 2 is now playing. 

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