It’s always hard to guess which films will come out of nowhere to become cult hits. Who would have thought that 2014’s John Wick would have become one of the most revered action films in recent years? The Keanu Reeves fronted flick set itself apart due to the expertly choreographed fight sequences, slickly filmed shootouts, and the stern, commanding performance from Reeves. Well, John Wick is back, and this time he’s going international in John Wick: Chapter 2.
When John Wick: Chapter 2 begins, the titular assassin is still wrapping up some loose ends from the previous movie, namely getting his car back from a group of thugs. With this easily done, John returns home hoping to finally put his violent past to rest. Unfortunately, the universe has other plans, as an old friend named Santino D’Antano (Riccardo Scamarcio) returns to force John into making good on a blood oath John owes him. Finding himself unable to refuse, John must saddle up one more time and head to Rome, where he will re-enter a dangerous world of assassins and power-brokers who don’t take kindly to his return. John will have to face his past head-on, including old friends and enemies, as he attempts to fight his way out of an impossible situation. But if anyone can take on an army of trained killers and walk away standing, it’s John Wick.
Director Chad Stahelsky and writer Derek Kolstad clearly understood that more is better when they made John Wick: Chapter 2. The sequel has more action, mythology, creative deaths, and more jaw-dropping stunts than the first movie and does it all while keeping everything that made the first instalment work so well. The action scenes are incredibly well filmed with very few edits or close-ups preventing you from seeing the many stuntmen do their work. The film doesn’t use any camera tricks to obfuscate the jaw-dropping stunt choreography, and instead just lets the action play out. I was so absorbed in the action scenes that my hands joined together as if I were holding a video game controller. The cherry on top of the action soufflé is the killer sound design, as every gunshot and bone break resonates with a satisfying bang or pop. The various locations where the fights take place also complement the action nicely. Whether it’s a busy nightclub, the catacombs of Rome or a labyrinthine hall of mirrors, the locations add a different layer to each fight and allow for some gruesome environmental kills.
John Wick: Chapter 2 significantly raises the stakes from the previous films by having John face off against fellow assassins who possess the same skill set he does, rather than the woefully incompetent mobsters he effortlessly took out in the first movie. You can actually see John getting physically tired as he’s fighting, showing that he isn’t the unstoppable force we thought he was. As the movie progresses, John’s body slowly breaks down from the substantial injuries he has accumulated, yet he still keeps fighting. If that doesn’t scream badass, I don’t know what does. This is also a much more comedic film than the original was, incorporating some pretty funny visual gags within the fight sequences.
If I have any major complaint about this sequel, it’s that it takes a while before you get fully invested in the overall plot. John’s motivations in the first film were immediately clear and relatable. After all, who wouldn’t want to hunt down the man who killed your puppy and stole your car? In John Wick: Chapter 2, however, you don’t get that kind of attachment since even John doesn’t want to pursue his target this time around seeing as how he’s only doing it at the bidding of someone else. This feeling disappears about half way through the movie, though, when the bad guys give John a valid reason for killing them.
Where John Wick: Chapter 2 may not always succeed regarding the main story, it does make the smart decision of delving further into the franchise’s unique assassin oriented mythology. In the first film, we only got brief little glimpses into this world, and Chapter 2 makes the smart decision to expand on that significantly. We discover that The Continental, a New York-based hotel that acts as an assassin neutral zone, is only one of a franchise of similar establishments all around the world (including Rome), operating under the same clear rule: No bloodshed on hotel grounds. There is a sense that these assassins do have some kind of honour, even if they would be willing to kill each other if the price were right. There are rules to this world, rules that even cold-hearted mercenaries are afraid of breaking, and seeing John try to accomplish his mission without breaking them is one of the film’s most interesting conceits.
Aside from the hotels, John makes brief yet entertaining pit stops to various underground vendors, where he shops for heavy duty weapons and bulletproof suits (which he pays for using a unique form of currency specific to this assassin organization) just as casually as we shop for food. We also discover that this organization of assassins has its own sort of political hierarchy, the “High Table”, which heavily figures into the film’s main plot as we discover that there’s a lot of infighting happening over who gets to take over a recently vacant seat.
We also get a few more hints at John’s previous life as an assassin, specifically when he comes into contact with The Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane), who returns here from the previous movie. The conversations between John and Winston are easily the best-written segments of the movie, and McShane easily the best actor in the film. Another blast from John’s past comes in the form of fellow hitman Cassian (Common), who is now the bodyguard of John’s primary target. You can tell that these two share history before they even exchange words, and that history come into play when they inevitably face-off against one another (albeit hesitantly) in what is quite possibly the film’s best fight scene. But, its Wick’s relationship with Santino which is the most detailed, as it was Santino who helped John escape the life back when he met his wife, and the reason John owes him that blood oath. Another interesting character is the mysterious Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), the leader of what appears to be a gang of criminal hobos. I’ll admit, it felt good seeing the two Matrix stars reunited, even if their interactions were all to brief.
I’m sure no one is happier that this franchise has taken off than Keanu Reeves, as the actor has risen from his post-Matrix slump to inhabit a role that perfectly fits his particular skill sets as an actor. John is mostly silent throughout the film, preferring to let his fists and guns do most of his talking. But when he does speak, there’s an undeniable intensity to him that could only come from a man who has done the kind of bad things John Wick has. Reeve’s spot-on facial expressions also contribute to letting you know exactly what kind of a mood John’s in, without him having to utter a single word.
If you liked the first John Wick than Chapter 2 will give you more of everything you enjoyed. Though John’s motivations for doing what he does may not be as relatable this time around, it’s still incredibly satisfying to see him kill dozens of bad guys in bloody and creative ways. The sequel’s expanded mythology and expansive set of supporting characters make for a much richer experience, and the film’s ending promises great things to come in future instalments. John Wick: Chapter 2 stands as a perfect model for how to make not only a good action movie but a great sequel as well.