John Wick: Chapter 2
“The film is indifferent to inclusion, just as it’s indifferent to lengthy dialogue or complex characterizations.”
Title: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Director: Chad Stahelski 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Derek Kolstad 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The slick visuals of John Wick: Chapter 2 are offset by juddering pacing and lackluster performances. Similar to its predecessor, which neatly earned double its production budget, both John Wicks suffer from a common core issue—the decision to cast Keanu Reeves in its titular role. Cary Darling of Rotten Tomatoes encapsulates my feelings when he says:
“For all the film's stylishness and a body count worthy of a small civil war, there's no getting around the fact that stiff, stoic Reeves—who is capable of a few funny, deadpan lines—isn't a particularly compelling lead action figure.”
While critics do vary wildly on the question of whether or not Keanu Reeves is a “good actor”, the skin-deep nature of Chapter 2 is generally agreed upon. It’s a shame when I know that the film’s fluid action sequences can be so much more than just varnish. David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick and produced Chapter 2, also directed Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller that pulls no punches but invests in more complex relationships and meticulous plotting. As a result, I adored Atomic Blonde and longed for a similar emotional foothold in Chapter 2.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NOPE
The women in this film are bit players in a man’s world. Of the 18 named characters, just 3 are female and all are ignominiously killed:
- Helen, played by Bridget Moynahan, appears in a brief flashback as John’s deceased wife. She was immediately fridged—that is, killed off for a man’s narrative—in the first film, so her role in Chapter 2 is microscopic.
- Gianna, played by Claudia Gerini, is John’s mark in Chapter 2. Alyssa Rosenberg explains on The Washington Post that “the movie presents her decision to slit her own wrists...as an act of self-determination.” But Rosenberg points out the obvious problem that Gianna never even attempts to stay alive. Instead, she immediately sacrifices herself to save Wick from the guilt of having to kill her. If that isn’t devaluing a woman’s worth against that of a man’s, then I don’t know what is.
- Ares, played by Ruby Rose, plays a dapper assassin who gets a lot of build-up, then gets squashed like a bug by John in a one-sided “fight” that fails to justify why Ares was the leader of the baddies.
In short, if you’re a franchise that has journalists penning articles like “Why Don't The Women In ‘John Wick’ Talk?” or “In the ‘John Wick’ movies, the women are dead and the men are trapped”, and if you’re 0 for 2 in passing the so-simple-it-was-supposed-to-be-a-joke Bechdel Test, then chances you’re going to do poorly in this category. Hell, I’m only giving Chapter 2 points at all for including two women who show up in multiple scenes, despite their hugely problematic renderings.
People of color pop up here and there, heavily outnumbered by white characters but still appearing in three significant roles:
- Keanu Reeves is technically mixed-race—his father has Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and English ancestry. However, Reeves passes as white in the John Wick series, so it’s difficult to count his visibility towards progress for Asian or Polynesian communities.
- Cassian—played by Common, who is black—is Gianna’s chief bodyguard. He receives the meatiest rivalry of the film, trading blows with John in multiple scenes as he gives him a run for his money. Cassian’s arc starkly contrasts with Ares’, who was equally built up throughout the film but whose fight scene took place in just one location and took all of two minutes.
- Bowery King—played by Laurence Fishburne, who is black—is an underground crime lord who presides over a network of agents camouflaged as homeless men. He has a great role as an outsider, so he presides in a position of power without having to be killed off like the fate of so many supporting characters that populate the John Wick universe.
In minor roles I’d like to point out two glaring Asian stereotypes: a giant sumo wrestler is easily dispatched by John and a factory seamstress makes a bulletproof suit for John.
Deduction for Disability: -0.25
Ares is a non-verbal assassin who communicates through sign language. If this character was created with more intent, this could have been a major bonus. But the signing community seems mixed on how authentically her disability is portrayed.
On one end the spectrum, Adam Membrey writes about his negative reaction as a deaf viewer, saying:
“The universal sign language–it’s not clear which dialect, if any, is used–with the subtitles is kind of a hot mess. It looks cool to general audiences, but it worked as a bad, confusing misfire to me.”
On the other hand, Reddit user Walsur assures us that “She uses a more specific subset called Signed Exact English,” but then adds, “It should be said I'm mostly speculating.”
If anyone has more clarity on how authentic Ares’ signing is, please drop us a line! Regardless, the fact of her being cast with a non-disabled actor remains. Look, I love the way Ruby Rose looks in that kick-ass suit too, and I think she does a great job with what little material she’s given. But why don a disability as if it’s a cool party trick?
Disabled people constitute fully 18.7%—almost a fifth—of the U.S. population. They need more visibility, but from actual representatives. Not from creators who appropriate their lifelong experiences just to exoticize non-disabled talent.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.50/5
For a film franchise that hasn’t scraped together a scene where two women exchange a single word, it actually does an okay job of casting two black men in significant roles. Unfortunately, the film’s glib stereotyping of Asians takes some wind out of its sails of ethnic representation.
Ultimately, the film is indifferent to inclusion, just as it’s indifferent to lengthy dialogue or complex characterizations. Its creators know why people sit down to watch a John Wick film. So as long as the fight choreo and cinematography remain solid, I expect fans will be pleased.