During the first few seconds of John Wick: Chapter 2, the motorcycle sequence from Buster Keaton’s 1924 film, Sherlock Jr. is projected on the side of a building in New York City. This is no accident: The influence Keaton has on the John Wick franchise and action movies is immense. Technological advances aside, the influence is easy to discern: the stunt work, the cinematography, even the fundamental use of physical action as a form of storytelling. But while action movies have long exuded a serious, no-funny-business demeanor, John Wick: Chapter 2 honors another enduring element of Keaton’s work: slapstick.
In this scene, we find John Wick (Keanu Reeves) off to confront relatives of his former Russian adversaries, led by Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), whose taxi service serves as a front for a chop shop and drug trafficking business. Without seeing the first film, one might guess that John plans to assassinate a dangerous drug lord. But that’s not why Wick is stalking Tarasov and his gang. We learn the reason when Tarasov’s number-two, Consiglieri (Wass Stevens), tries to wrap his head around the situation:
“So, we’re giving everything up for a car?”
“It’s not just a car,” Tarasov attests. “It is John Wick’s car.”
Enter John Wick. As he infiltrates the garage and begins his murderous rampage, his actions are spliced with the Russians’ continued conversation. Through this we’re reminded that, in addition to stealing his car, the Russians also killed his “puppy.” These are ridiculous reasons for a killing spree, but, obviously, Wick’s world isn’t exactly normal. As Wick methodically takes out more henchmen, Tarasov turns the conversation to a familiar legend:
“He once killed three men in a bar––”
“With a pencil,” Consiglieri interrupts. “I know I’ve heard the story.”
“With a fucking pencil!” Abram exclaims. “Who the fuck can do that?”
Thanks to the context this conversation provides (alongside later shots of a hilariously wide-eyed Abram listening to the fight from his office), the violence that follows not only remains physically astonishing but also becomes hysterical: All of this over a puppy and a car?
The scene subtly nods to Keaton’s work because it wisely inverts Keaton’s slapstick. In Sherlock Jr., Keaton plays a young projectionist who longs to be a detective. His character’s naivety and inexperience in detective work make the film’s jaw-dropping, extravagant stunts, including those in the motorcycle sequence, all the more hilarious. Wick’s determination to avenge his dog and recover his car not only makes the serious demeanor of contemporary action films (a facade buttressed by sleek cinematography and breakneck editing) feel silly, but also makes the violence all the more outlandish, unwarranted, and, wonderfully so, slapstick-ish. All the more joy for us audience members, for we not only receive a scene that’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek, but a film that honors its great debt to the past.