Back in 2014, John Wick not only hinted at a resurgence for Keanu Reeves as one of cinema’s greatest action stars, but proved an effective antidote to the over-edited and uninspired combat choreography that’s come to dominate the movies. It wasn’t like the Taken trilogy, or Olympus Has Fallen, or the many bombastic but weightless action found in mega-budget franchises. John Wick had fluidity and style. It was a film closer to Indonesia’s The Raid than its American alternatives, with meticulously choreographed fight scenes crackling with energy while still being patient and methodical. It suffused character moments into its action set-pieces, too, and the hardened edge of Reeves was perfectly suited to the eponymous hitman.
It’s fitting that the continuation of Wick’s story feels so much like The Raid’s own sequel. It picks up straight after the end of the first “chapter” and goes bigger, bloodier, and bolder. There’s clearly more money being spent this time around, and the movie focuses on expanding its unique world while putting John into increasingly tense situations.
If there’s one major difference between the first John Wick and Chapter 2 it’s in the plotting, though. The original was gloriously simple: thugs kill retired assassin John Wick’s puppy and he’s out for payback. There’s a lot of detail around that plot, involving John’s former career and old associates, but it’s a straightforward revenge flick at its core. This follow-up weaves a more complex narrative. It fleshes out the world-building of the original and spends more time developing the secret underground world of killers that was previously mostly hinted at. While it doubles down on a more intricate plot, that doesn’t detract from its other strengths, and John Wick: Chapter 2 proves it knows what an action sequel must deliver. It’s still got great no-nonsense dialogue, slick choreography, and gorgeous cinematography, while Reeves is in his element giving a stoic performance as the reluctant but unstoppable one-man army at the heart of the story.
Narratively, John Wick: Chapter 2 throws us straight back into John’s quest to balance the scales. He may have got his vengeance on the killer of the dog given to him by his late wife, but he’s still got to get his stolen car back. The film opens with an outrageous and ambitious warehouse fight that involves numerous cars, as John casually eliminates enemies with his bare hands. It’s brutal and beautiful, and the movie’s only just getting started. From there, we discover that John owes a debt to an Italian super-criminal, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), and the only way to get rid of the IOU is to do one last job for this evil man. Even when he’s done what is requested, though, it’s no surprise to see that D’Antonio attempts to tie up loose ends by getting his lackey Ares (Ruby Rose) to take out Wick. As anyone who’s seen the first movie knows, messing with Wick is a very bad idea — as once his anger and wrath are unleashed they’re not easily contained.
Did John Wick really need a sequel? Probably not. But Chapter 2 makes a strong case for why it’s worth spending more time in Wick’s crazy world, even if it’s just because it’s such a fascinating alternate reality where every second person you bump into on the street might secretly be an assassin in their spare time. There’s a whole code of conduct when it comes to this shadowy life, and it turns out that the Continental hotel which served as a safe haven for John and other contract killers in the first movie is really a worldwide branch of hotels. When John goes to Italy to complete the job he has to do for D’Antonio, he stays in the Continental hotel in Rome, and we learn even more about the particular rules assassins won’t break and the resources the Continental provides them with — something that’s key to the story’s resolution. It also never ceases to be amusing to see various people react to John getting back into his old line of work, and there’s something compelling about how everyone seems to recognise that something’s changed within him and that he’s far less suited to this life than he used to be.
Like the first part, Chapter 2 is directed by Reeves’ former stunt double from The Matrix trilogy, Chad Stahelski. Together with Reeves, Stahelski has created a kind of poetic dance in the way these movies deal with hyper-violent action. It’s a style that’s been dubbed ‘gun-fu’ for the way it merges martial arts with handgun shootouts, and when the film’s action is at its peak it’s simply electric to watch. Stories of John being able to kill men with merely a pencil were just rumours in the first film, but here we see how it’s done with all the savage efficiency one expects. Along with the aforementioned opening fight with the cars in the warehouse, other spectacular scenes include a hand-to-hand knife fight with fellow hitman Cassian (Common) in a New York subway train, a brawl between the same two characters in the streets of Rome, and John’s showdown against Ares as the film reaches its climax.
While these simpler action scenes are magnificent, the inflated budget does mean there are many more scenes of John exterminating faceless henchmen for lengthy periods of time. While this can be just as gripping, it can also easily outstay its welcome. There’s a particular scene in Rome that just feels like an unending succession of John Wick kills, and while there’s that same balletic beauty to the choreography, it can be almost too much of a good thing. It also begins to become clear that John himself is virtually invincible and can’t really be harmed, and that he appears to be the only assassin to have discovered the deadly headshot, as everyone else shoots uselessly at the body armour on his chest.
The fantastically conceived action isn’t the only area in which John Wick: Chapter 2 excels. This simply feels like an action movie that holds itself to a higher standard. The production design is spot-on, with sets and environments that feel new and unpredictable, and they’re wonderfully filmed to boot. Even the costuming is terrific, and there’s just a great sense of character and personality to this world and all of its inhabitants. Lance Reddick (The Wire) and Ian McShane (Deadwood) are among the cast members returning to their roles from the first film, and new important figures are introduced including Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne as Bowery King, an underworld leader of another group of assassins who’s sure to be central to Chapter 3…
John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t without some flaws, as it’s easy to see this level of violence simply being too much for some viewers, and there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had about the extent to which it glorifies guns. The bodycount is so much higher than the first movie’s, to a somewhat shocking level, and that does take a toll on the audience while taking some of the impact out of the individual kills themselves. It’s also worth noting that without a dog to avenge, it does feel a little like John doesn’t have the moral high ground this time around. It’s not a major drawback, but it does have an effect on how easy it is to empathise with his character. When he’s accused of being addicted to the thrill of these life-or-death situations by another character, it rings true.
Even taking those slight quibbles into account, though, this is still a thrilling feature that makes a strong case for the gruff and reluctant John Wick being the definitive modern action hero. Reeves is outstanding in this role, which makes the most of his sometimes limited emotional range, and his comfort with physically demanding action at the age of 52 is nothing short of incredible. A high degree of professionalism has gone into crafting the polished look and feel of this film, while its commitment to developing a world full of quirks and surprises pays off very well — as does the dark sense of humour and lively pacing. This is what action sequels should feel like in the 21st-century, and it’ll leave viewers with confidence that the expected third chapter to this story will be just as rewarding.
Cast & Crew
director: Chad Stahelski.
writer: Derek Kolstad.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick.