A good thing happened back in 2014. Not only did the assassin world learn John Wick was back, but audiences found out Keanu Reeves was back as well. While not exactly slumming (Reeves has starred, produced and directed many films over the last decade alone), John Wick became the first notable action film for the former Matrix star in a while. Solid reviews and good word-of-mouth turned that film from stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch into a modest hit. That was enough to give audiences John Wick: Chapter 2, a film that delves further into the colorful world of assassins introduced in the first film, with a whole lot of crazy action that delivers stylish, violent fun.
For those who kept track, retired assassin John Wick (Reeves) killed 80+ people in the first film. Sure, they were all trying to kill him, but that’s quite the kill count. This film may or may not double that number (it’s at least close), but we see the same brutal efficiency that made the character a standout force to be reckoned with the first time around. Chapter 2 fortunately doesn’t have to do with another dead dog, but there is a strange amount of joy that comes from seeing the 52-year-old Reeves deal out so much deadly damage.
Stahelski is the lone director this time around, with screenwriter Derek Kolstad returning to further flesh out this world. What helps guide these two through a sequel to what could have been a standalone feature is the decision to dive deeper into the ideas that were merely window dressing for the first film. John Wick told a crazy story about a former assassin getting revenge for his dead dog. It led to his arrival at hotel known as The Continental (lorded over by Ian McShane, with a concierge played with precision by Lance Reddick), which revealed a whole world of assassins occupying a sacred and violence-free space together, dealing in some sort of gold currency and holding onto a level of professional courtesy suitable for any formal business. This new chapter takes that aspect to a whole new level.
Plot-wise there is actually less to go on. An opening action scene allows the film to wrap up its only major loose end from the first film (John’s car), before revealing a new plot. This involves Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) recruiting John to assassinate Santino’s sister (Italian star Claudia Gerini), in an effort to take some control over the ancient assassin’s guild. John is bound by a blood oath to Santino, so he reluctantly accepts the mission, but these things never go as planned.
To the film’s credit, following the opening action sequence, there seems to be no hurry to get to the action-packed second half of this two hour film. It allows plenty of time to take in the details of this (admittedly ludicrous) story, understand who the old and new players are (everyone who didn’t die in the first film makes a return) and get a proper read on Wick’s mental state. Once John arrives in Rome and attempts to complete his mission, the film never lets up on the action and that is a very good thing.
Getting back to Reeves though, this film and these filmmakers continue to service the actor incredibly well. The public seems to have enough familiarity with Reeves at this point to know what he is capable of (an aspect that has largely grown out of proportion to those who choose to continually make fun of him). With the John Wick character, Reeves takes a stoic action persona and injects it with enough compassion that allows the audience to constantly root for the man who likely breaks the record for number of headshots in a film. It comes down to the core of who Wick is. This is a guy who gave up being basically the world’s best assassin for love, only to have that stripped away from him. As a result, we now have two films where Reeves acts his heart out as a man denied the time to grieve for his dead wife. Yes, the physical performance is also plenty notable, but there is something to be said for seeing what drives this man beneath the surface.
What he’s also driven to is another action-packed story, as this film really tries to take its gunplay to the next level. John Wick: Chapter 2 has plenty of frantic mayhem, but it is all very well-shot, cleanly edited and quite stylish. In a current action film world that mostly delivers chopped up fight scenes and bland locations, here is a film that embraces a world around it and makes sure the audience can see it. Gun fights and bare knuckle brawls are staged in Roman catacombs, colorful parties, museums, the streets of New York and even an art exhibit that calls to mind The Lady From Shanghai or Enter the Dragon (feel free to pick your poison). The choreography, staging and all-around effort unfolds like a darkly comedic ballet of bullets that will easily satisfy action junkies.
Given the body count, one could start questioning things from a moral standpoint. However, this is a film that exists in a stylized world where anyone could be an assassin and the authorities are in short supply (thought the assassins make it a point to keep collateral damage to an absolute minimum, so take that modern Superman). Among the random assassins who emerge, you have Common, who becomes a very memorable rival to Wick. His character is even put in the position of someone who has just cause to be after Wick, leading to a couple incredible brawls/chases, along with a wonderful moment where the two sit and have a conversation, before things become heated once again.
With an expanded runtime and enough world-building to keep one interested in the larger picture that now happens to encompass John Wick, the film begins too feel like we’re almost getting too much by the time Laurence Fishburne’s resistance figure character is introduced. That said, the film’s finale leaves things in a place that had me very intrigued by what a third chapter in this tale could bring.
Given how entertaining, flashy and unique these past two John Wick films have been, getting ready for more is something I would welcome. John Wick: Chapter 2 may lack the lean efficiency of the first film, but the bigger and better routine that sometimes sinks sequels has ended up turning this film into a great ride to be on with the one and only Reeves. This film has plenty of gun fights, car chases, cool production design and cool characters in general to make John Wick a true hit to look out for.