One of the new layers to the John Wick universe added in the sequel is the revelation that there are different factions of assassins roaming the streets. They weren’t part of the original plan, but after the 2014 original became such a sleeper hit, screenwriter Derek Kolstad was forced to fill out the shadowy world of assassins for Chapter 2. That included creating a kind of outlaw yang to Wick’s yin: the Bowery King.
In the sequel, a $7 million contract is put on Wick after he returns from a hit on High Table member Gianna D’Antonio in Rome. There, her brother Santino tried to have Wick killed after he did Santino’s dirty work. But Wick fights back, and that always means a lot of death. In one of the movie’s best montages, we see Wick take out a bevy of assassins in New York out to collect the multi-million dollar contract. They fail with gusto, and Wick takes out two guys with nothing more than a pencil. But he sustains injuries along the way and needs help. As he is trudging through a subway station and trailed by two assassins posing as janitors, Wick suddenly drops down near a homeless man asking for change. “Take me to him,” Wick demands. The homeless guy, we find out, isn’t actually homeless.
Then we’re introduced to an assassin faction made up entirely of operatives posing as homeless people, led by Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King. “Laurence’s strength is that he plays the Bowery King as humorous, but also fucked up in the most evil way,” Kolstad said. “You’re chuckling at the same time you’re scared shitless of him.”
Kolstad explained the reveal of these characters as a new group simply came from figuring out who the bad guys of the sequel should be.
“[Director] Chad Stahelski and I talked about who the tertiary villain should be,” he said. Their first inclination was to make the police into the new shadow faction, but it was soon scrapped. “Anytime the cops have character moments outside of Jimmy it always seemed cluttered, so the Bowery King became our nod to the underbelly having an underbelly.”
In the mythology of John Wick, Reeves’s character essentially created this new underbelly. A tense sequence in Chapter 2 when Wick finally meets Fishburne’s Bowery King reveals that at one point, Wick was going to collect on a contract and kill the Bowery King. But he’s a softie at heart, so Wick did something a little bit different: He put a knife in the Bowery King’s throat and left him with a choice. He could pull the knife out and die, or leave it in and never be heard from again.
The Bowery King chose to go quiet, but didn’t disappear; instead, he steadily recruited his own disillusioned assassin army since then. “In the sequel we find out the assassins world is split between those who operate under certain guidelines and those who don’t,” Kolstad said. The Bowery King’s squad are definitely those who don’t.
“We wanted it to be like those World War II movies where Allied soldiers went into places like Switzerland and found out everything operates under different rules,” Kolstad said, citing the post-fight sequence where Wick and another assassin played by Common have to pull themselves together after crashing through the windows of the Continental. The rivals are forced to stop and get a drink because the rules state that there’s no killing on Continental grounds. Kolstad used another cinematic precedent to explain the Bowery King’s lack of rules.
“It’s like in Westerns where a gunslinger can walk into one saloon and there’s no way anything bad can go down, but in another tavern in a different town you get the sense that anybody could start shooting anyone in the back at any moment,” Kolstad said. He even hinted at new factions that could emerge as well. “There are places out there in the John Wick world that are the opposite sides of the coin, and that’s what we’re going to focus on in the future.”
Based on what happens at the end of Chapter 2, it’s likely that Wick is going to have to rely more and more on the Bowery King and his squad. When Wick breaks the rules of the Continental by killing Santino D’Antonio in the hotel bar, Winston lists Wick as “excommunicado.” That prompts the contract on Wick to double. With a $14 million price on his head, Chapter 2 leaves on a cliffhanger of Wick and his trusty unnamed pit bull companion running for their lives.
Kolstad hinted that a Reeves and Fishburne team-up is inevitable. “As this world unfolds, the Bowery King can play a greater part as the opposite side of the High Table,” he said. But it’s also personal. “[Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves] love each other from working on The Matrix movies — they’re family,” Kolstad said. “You watch Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Laurence, and Keanu working and it’s a blessing. They loved working off each other, and we can’t wait to do more.”
Photos via Lionsgate