I have a confession: I did not love the first John Wick movie. If you don’t like action movies in which loner heroes fight their way through a succession of gangland enemies to get revenge for some deep wrong or betrayal, then you won’t find this a surprising opinion. But I do like such movies, and Wick was hailed by connoisseurs of the genre as a highly effective return to form, its success a bright spot in a landscape where special effects have overtaken the old choreography of fisticuffs.
Which, in many ways, it was. But I had a peculiar gripe about the titular main character, a former hitman played by Keanu Reeves in his finest stone-faced style, who carves his way through the Russian mob after a Mafioso idiot scion beats him up and steals his car and kills . . . his . . . dog. (The dog was a gift from his late wife, so the movie isn’t just a canine-lover’s manifesto.)
The heart of this particular genre’s appeal is watching somebody do the impossible — fight an entire world of enemies singlehandedly, and win — but without the superheroic gifts that dominate the defining genre of our time. There are two ways this can happen: He can be an everyman, like Bruce Willis’s character in Die Hard, who under extraordinary circumstances uses his brains and guts and luck and gumption to outwit as well as outfight his enemies. Or he can be someone with a very special set of skills — the martial arts of Jackie Chan, the assassin’s talents of Liam Neeson’s Taken dad. In either case, he’ll still have to take more punishment than any normal human being could. But in both cases you’re given some reason to suspend your disbelief that he could pull it off.
And what has kept me from investing fully in Mr. Wick, now back for his third outing in John Wick: Parabellum, is that I don’t know how he does it. He is not a beleaguered everyman in the John McClane style, that’s for sure. Instead, we are told again and again, usually in hushed, Russian-accented tones, that he’s a nearly supernatural force, a Baba Yaga, a bogeyman. Well and good. But then in the action scenes that follow, he never seems that much more capable than any of his enemies; he just fights them one on one, or sometimes one on two or three, and always comes out just barely ahead.
This workmanlike quality lends the fights a certain grit, a punishing realism, that’s absent when a martial artist goes to work, and Wick’s progress evokes at times the doggedness of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, another hardworking action hero. But Hunt has his team and his masks and his gadgets to help explain why he always pulls things out. Whereas Wick is a man (mostly) alone, and as the fights accumulate and the body count rises, the sense that the story wants to impart, of John Wick, force of nature, Death itself, gives way to the sense that he’s surviving all these fights just because the screenplay requires him to be a force of nature — when in reality, in the world we’re being shown, he’s just a solid, capable fighter who survives because all the breaks go his way.
Is this a stupid complaint about a series that makes no pretense of realism elsewhere — that takes place in a world with a secret government employing assassins who seem to kill only one another and whose battles are largely ignored by civilians and passers-by? Maybe so. I’m a great believer in the internal consistency of fantasy worlds, the importance of keeping things plausible not even but especially when you’re positing a different architecture for the universe. (This is a test that Game of Thrones spent many seasons passing and then abruptly failed.) But it’s possible that what the Wick movies are offering is a kind of magical-realist version of the action genre, where the luck of the protagonist is itself built into their universe’s architecture.
And approaching them in that spirit I have enjoyed the movies more in certain ways with each installment, as the baroque assassin’s world envelops the narrative, the appearances by normal people fall away, and we just move from one ludicrously tricked-out lair to another, with stops in between at the movies’ best invention, the Continental Hotels (there’s one in every city), where assassins are required to keep the peace.
In the latest entry we visit a Continental in Casablanca to meet a not particularly well-cast Halle Berry, plus a Russian mob lair, with Anjelica Huston presiding, that trains all its boys to be killers and all its girls to be ballerinas, plus a tent in the desert where the sheikh who sits “above the High Table” weighs and measures Wick. And then we return to the original Continental, with Ian McShane presiding devilishly as the hotelier and Lance Reddick at his side, for the final dance with death.
And through it all Reeves maintains the weird handsome anti-charisma that’s made him one of our strangest, most arresting movie stars for a quarter of a century. These are not really great movies, but for him John Wick is a great part: If I don’t quite believe in him as the Grim Reaper personified, I believe in the quality Reeves always imparts — that amid whatever absurd action or science-fiction situation he finds himself, from the careening bus in Speed to the kung fu fighting of The Matrix to now a gunfight at the Continental Hotel, his character is as serious as death.
This article appears as “Dance with Death” in the July 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.