The first John Wick introduced us to a colorful criminal underworld that stylized and codified action movie tropes. Many action movie heroes have cut a bloody swath of vengeance after a loved one was slain, but John Wick pushed the trope into the absurd by having him avenge a dog. Action movies seem to be populated by impossible numbers of assassins and mobsters, many living by iconoclastic or honorable “codes” that would seem at odds with their occupations. John Wick presents a world with so many professionals killers and criminals that they literally have have their own currency, clubs, and hotel (the Continental), and rigid rules and traditions that (almost) everyone obeys. John Wick showed just enough of this world to give the movie color and character, serving as a backdrop to accomplished action and stunts that made critics and audiences take notice.
John Wick: Chapter 2 goes the sequel route of “bigger is better.” John’s already ridiculous body count from the first movie is nearly doubled. The criminal underworld is expanded exponentially. We find out there is more than one Continental, and meet others in the community that supply and support these criminal endeavors (the Sommelier being particularly delightful). The world becomes even more colorful and heightened, and the action keeps pace. This is exemplified by the silenced pistol shootout in the subway station.
Midway through the film, John has completed his blood debt and killed crime boss Gianna D’Antonio under orders from her brother Santino. Gianna was under the protection of Cassian (Common), who doggedly pursued John through Rome after her murder. Eventually they crashed into the protected grounds of the Continental, leading to a stalemate and a tense drink at the bar. After John returns to New York City, the traitorous Santino calls in an open contract to dispose of him. John is attacked by multiple assailants across the city. He fights them off with varying levels of difficulty, until bruised and bloodied he ducks into a crowded subway station. There John is spotted by Cassian on the level above him. John also sees Cassian, and both draw their silenced pistols. The men exchange bullets as they walk through the crowded station. Neither man hits their target and they continue on through the sea of unsuspecting civilians to confront each other in a subway car.
This brief scene is a microcosm of what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 great. Pretty much everyone knows at this point that the term “silencer” is a misnomer. Silencers reduce the hearing-damaging noise caused by gunfire, but they are not the magical movie devices we see that turn explosive gunfire into “pew pew” noises. Yet that trope continues to persist in almost every movie and TV show. John Wick: Chapter 2 stretches this trope into surreal territory with this scene between John and Cassian. The people around them remain completely unaware of the potentially deadly exchange going on mere inches away from them. This isn’t just an action movie populace that is ignorant of criminal activity in general, they don’t even notice an actual gunfight taking place in their midst. Either man could have used a civilian to shield themselves, or injured one to cause chaos and confusion to aid their escape/pursuit. Yet they do no such thing, because despite being criminals and killers, they are professionals and men of honor. Their discussion at the bar of the Continental showed us this. Cassian understands John had no choice but to complete his blood debt, and John understands Cassian has no choice but to pursue him for killing Cassian’s ward. In the end, John leaves Cassian in a subway car with a knife stuck in his aorta, one the only people he does not explicitly kill in the movie, as “a professional courtesy.”
Codes of honor. Silenced guns. Impossibly skilled professional killers. The tropes are familiar and comfortable enough that the filmmakers can assume audiences know the deal, so they can push these concepts into almost abstract territory and combine them all together into a stylized world that feels fully realized. The film ends with an even bigger contract on John’s head. He is given a head start, and as he leaves Central Park seemingly everyone around him is watching him. This could be symbolic of his paranoia, or the park could literally be filled with assassins waiting for their chance at John. In the world of John Wick, either option is equally plausible.