Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Movie review: John Wick: Chapter 2, dir Chad Stahelski (2017)

This was the second movie I watched on Netflix in one day, and I ended the session just before bedtime. After dinner I had selected an action movie because I like the ways such movies find solutions to the problem of plotting and also how, to progress the drama, they use violence often, as with this movie, in highly stylised forms.

This movie is so extremely violent (though not at all scary; I won’t watch horror) that the problem of gun use in the United States became relevant once the credits ran. Even earlier. Keanu Reeves (who plays the eponymous character) is known for his sensitive acting and in real life he is a charming and considerate person, so you wonder why he agrees to work on movies such as this where a person dies every half-second, in some parts.

The opening sequence, which involves Wick retrieving his car from a warehouse and ends with the death of a Russian mobster, is like a distillation of the fear the filmmakers must have had about making something that will desensitise some viewers to the awfulness of gun violence. This part of the film is hackneyed and trite – quite unlike the artful scenes deployed in other parts of the product – and thus could have been intended as an antidote to the risk inherent in making it. “If you believe this film is real,” the filmmakers seem to be saying, “have a look at this bit.”

The bad writing here downplays, in opposition to the ‘John Wick’ films, the run-of-the-mill action flic, and privileges what you are about to see. The sequence is entirely contrived and not only unbelievable but embodies in a nutshell the kind of artificial glamour that, in order to entertain, such movies retail in. Nevertheless this film feels, in parts, like a first-person shooter video game where you are Wick and the zombies are the mobsters and assassins trying to gun you down. The community’s appetite for this kind of movie seems to be endless, and so the way it ends is unsurprising.

Between the scene with the Russian and the closing credits there is however a lot of material. It’s not a long film but it’s got several twists in it, so as soon as you think the movie is about to end a new plotline begins to draw you into the drama. And it’s an interesting dynamic, one filled with wealth, privilege and the feeling that you are witnessing events that only happen to the chosen few. This must be how people living in developing economies feel when they see Hollywood movies in their local cinemas in Cairo or Mombasa.

One plot device the writer uses to keep things ticking over is a clearing house for executive decisions. This place is deliberately old-school, a place where tattooed women (some young, some not young at all) receive orders by telephone – the old, Bakelite or plastic models that people alive today have either never used or last used when they were much younger than they are now – which are then distributed to a list of stored phone numbers belonging to people in the community.

One person who gets the SMS might be a busker, another might be a homeless person sitting on the pavement. As they read the messages they might look up to see, walking past, a man or woman who has just had a contract put on their head. It’s actually a good metaphor for clinical types of paranoia and embodies the sense that many people have of a distant and all-powerful elite who manage the levers of society for their own gain. The number of people in real life who believe such things is surprisingly large.

But there is a disconnect between this idea – that the entire population is witting to a conspiracy – and the idea of privilege that other parts of the movie embody. It’s a curious movie that stands up on its own two feet and is worth watching (unless you are a disaffected young American with an AR15 and a grudge). The disjunction between one idea (universal access to information) and another (a tiny elite) is, I think, where the core of this movie lies but someone with more space to fill is going to have to write that essay. 

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